Book Referenced: Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1986 (reprint of 1958 edition)
The ALSC, the children’s services arm of the American Library Association, is currently discussing the possibility of renaming some of their awards, which honor achievement in the field of children’s literature. Two of the awards under consideration are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for “a substantial and lasting contribution” to books for children, and the Geisel Award, for an outstanding book for beginning readers. Aside from the larger issue of balancing the need for respect and cultural diversity with recognition of literary excellence, the two authors whose names are identified with these awards are quite different. While Wilder’s entire body of work is defined by her pioneer narratives, in which the displacement of Native Americans is an essential theme, Dr. Seuss was involved in many more different types of work over his long career. I have written on this blog before (here and here) about why I believe that calls for his removal from libraries, homes, or awards result from a lack of historical understanding. It often seems that his critics fail to understand the political climate in the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s, when Geisel/Dr. Seuss was a courageous opponent of isolationism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. I am aware that he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, and I believe that is unforgivable. He later went on to support progressive causes, and he revolutionized beginning readers in a way which has benefited all children.
Everyone knows that Yertle the Turtle is a bully and a fascist. Dr. Seuss’s cautionary and inspiring tale about the need to speak truth to power was published as a book with two other stories in 1958. Let’s review what happens when an insignificant and insecure would-be dictator actually assumes power. Quotes that do not rhyme are from a Yertle today, one unknown to Dr. Seuss, yet repeatedly described and mocked in his work:
“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me….
If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be!
What a king! I’d be ruler of all I could see!”
“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency so far”
Des Moines Register, 2/06/15
“But that isn’t all. I’ll do better than that!
I’m king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
My throne shall be higher! His royal voice thundered,
“So pile up more turtles! I want ‘bout two hundred!”
“I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
Phoenix rally, August, 2017
“You shut up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”
“I would never kill them (reporters), but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.”
Speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, December, 2015
“You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!”
“Spend more time working – less time talking.”
Advice to United Steel Workers union in tweet, December, 2016
In the near future, we hope to see the ending of Yertle the Turtle repeated, applied today as it did to tyrants in Dr. Seuss’s era:
“I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
“And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course…all turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”