Perhaps you heard the big literary news today: that a new book by the beloved Dr. Seuss is to be published this summer, even though Dr. Seuss himself (Theodor Seuss Giesel) has been dead for more than 20 years. (Apparently his widow discovered the manuscript for the book, called What Pet Should I Get?, in a box of his papers. Good news for his publisher and all concerned, who stand to make an awful lot of money from what is sure to be a bestseller. Kind of reminds one of the upcoming publication of another novel by Harper Lee, who until a similar kind of discovery was made among her papers had always sworn that the classic To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book.)
Anyway, this Dr. Seuss news has put me in mind of my own favourite Dr. Seuss work, and it’s one that doesn’t get nearly the notice that many of his others do. Of course you are all familiar with The Cat in the Hat, and Green Eggs and Ham (click here for an earlier post by me that includes mention of that one, and a link to the classic Saturday Night Live sketch in which The Rev. Jesse Jackson reads from the book), of course How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and perhaps And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, and the one beloved of environmentalists, The Lorax, and the last one published in Geisel’s lifetime, one that is a frequent gift to grads, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
But do you know about The Sneetches?
Ah, The Sneetches. That was a Dr. Seuss story that I discovered in Mrs. Ketcheson‘s Grade 1 class at Madoc Township Public School when I was a kid growing up here at the Manse, and that I have loved ever since. Recently I managed to get my hands on a vintage copy in excellent shape, which is a fine addition to the children’s corner upstairs at the Manse.
What I love about the story of The Sneetches is that it is all about tolerance – about the fact that there is nothing in a person’s outward appearance that makes him or her better or worse than any other person, and that we should all just smarten up and learn to get along. It was a good lesson back in 1961 when it was first published – a time when the civil-rights movement in the United States still had a long way to go, when schools were still segregated and African-Americans were frequently denied voting rights – and it’s a good lesson for today.
So what’s the Sneetches’ story? It’s that on the beaches, where the Sneetches live, there are two kinds of Sneetches: the kind with stars on their bellies, and the ones without. (They have “none upon thars,” as Dr. Seuss so Seussically puts it.) The ones with stars look way down their noses at the no-star Sneetches, and treat them abominably:
Whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past then without even talking.
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game…? Not at all…
When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches,
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.
Then one day, much to the joy of the no-star Sneetches, along comes a canny entrepreneur with the terrific name of Sylvester McMonkey McBean, with a marvellous machine that can put stars on bellies! Of course the starless Sneetches all line up to fork over their cash to McBean and get their stars. But then the original Star-Belly Sneetches get their knickers in a knot because they no longer enjoy social superiority based on their appearance. And so the wily McBean adjusts his machine to take stars off, so that the formerly starred Sneetches can be bare-bellied and pronounce starlessness to be infinitely superior. Which in turn leads the newly starred Sneetches to have their stars off, and one thing follows another, and it’s just a steady steam of Sneetches getting stars put on and taken off until – no one can remember who was who or which was which.
The story ends with the acknowledgement of two universal truths:
One, it doesn’t matter whether you have a star on your belly or not.
And two, there will always be people like Sylvester McMonkey McBean who will find a way to cash in on other people’s inferiority/superiority complexes. Still, even though he drives off with his truck overflowing with the Sneetches’ money, you have to give McBean and his machine credit for the Sneetches eventually reaching enlightenment:
…I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.
It’s a great story, and a great lesson – for a little kid in Grade 1 at Madoc Township Public School in 1966, and for any adult anywhere today.
Because, you know, we are all Sneetches.