Growing up in the misty mountain valleys of South India, I relished every moment spent with my nose in books and my feet in socks. Nestled in the range of Nilgiri hills, in a place too small to merit a dot on the map, is a place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up. The rainy climes and lack of digital entertainment options meant that we read as many books as we could, and used our imagination to come up with innovative games and entertainment options.
Enid Blyton lifted all of us children into clouds above The Magic Faraway Tree or whisked us away on the Wishing Chair. Tinkle comics & Champak took us for a spin (I am trying to remember some of the characters without the aid of the Internet – a cheap thrill in the current times – Kalia the crow, Chamataka the fox, Doob-Doob the crocodile, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi, Naseeruddin Hodja, Vikram & Betaal and of course, that vague huntsman who should be the mascot for gun control laws, Shikari Shambu).
As we grew older though, we moved away from Children’s comics and fantasy books. As more serious fare gradually replaced this wonderful array, I never expected to revisit that wondrous feeling of picking up a children’s book where you know not what magical world opens up to you, and when. But that is exactly what happened when I had children here, and we journeyed into these marvelous worlds together. I had never read the Thomas Train series or the Curious George series or the Berenstain Bear series or any of the books by Dr. Seuss as a child and I got to experience all of this with them for the first time. Oh! The simple pleasures of reading a book like any of these for the first time are gift enough, but to be blessed to be able to read it for the first time as an adult is surreal. It was like growing up all over again. To that, I am eternally grateful.
One morning, the old body was off to a slow start, and I was yawning sleepily in the car. The elementary school-going son looked at me, shook his head with pity and said, “I know what will wake you up! Let’s listen to Horton Hatches The Egg” and we did. The son & I were soon cracking up with loud laughter in the car – sleep had flown, and the nonsensical plot had truly woken me up surer than caffeine could. It is a marvelous book and takes one through the hilarious plot of an elephant hatching an egg.
I don’t think the little fellow knew about Dr Seuss’s quote on nonsense waking up the brain cells, but it worked like a charm:
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
Today, some of Dr. Seuss’s books are being pulled back to have a more inclusive perspective. We know the world changes, but the underlying sentiment he sought to share with the world is one of inclusivity, as he knew first-hand what it was to be ostracized. He knew what it meant to not feel welcomed, and most of his books encouraged us to open our minds and embrace the world.
The current news about the books makes for a great conversation starter on racism with children – for some of his books such as Sneetches examine racism, and how we are more alike than different in spite of our physical differences. I remember being shocked to learn Enid Blyton’s books came under similar criticism. When I was a child reading these books, all they did was transport me to a magical place. I was a brown-skinned girl growing up in South India, but that did not stop me from imagining the 90-ft Eucalyptus tree at the end of our street poked its topmost branches into the revolving worlds in the clouds. But when I re-read them now, I see the point: I must confess that this has led to many interesting discussions with the children.
As the world evolves, and we continue to grow as individuals, it also gives us an opportunity to look for places in the writing that were reflective of the times. For instance, what we identify as unacceptable today was considered acceptable 20-30 years ago. This, in my mind, is a hugely positive aspect of human-beings. Isn’t being able to stop, evaluate ourselves and become better versions of ourselves one of the greatest accomplishments of being human?
Ted Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in a well-off family. His father, after running the successful family business for several years, later worked for the public parks system with access to a zoo. He puts many of his influences down to the natural loafing around in the countryside with access to animals as a child. His mother had a knack for reading things in verse to him in a way that stuck in his brain. Over his brilliant career, he would combine both these influences in a charming manner to enable an entire generation to love reading.
Ted was a school-going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the First World War started. The Geisels were first-generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds. His books only ask for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg or eating green eggs and ham.
His college sweetheart, and later, wife, Helen Palmer, was the first person to suggest to Ted that he may be better off drawing and writing than pursuing an academic career at Cambridge. He says this was around the time he realized that writing and drawing were like the Yin and Yang to his work.
Excerpt from the book:
One day she watched Ted undertake to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost; he drew the angel Uriel sliding down a sunbeam, oiling the beam as he went from a can that resembled a tuba.
“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw.” she blurted out. She glanced at a cow he had drawn and said, “That is a beautiful cow!”
Praise from the one you love is truly lovely, and it set him on the course of his career.
I am truly grateful for Dr. Seuss’s books. He and so many authors gave me the gift of finding wonder and magic in an immigrant’s journey. Read Across America Week was started during Dr. Seuss’s birthday week, and continues to enthrall children. In my son’s school, this year was the multicultural reading week. He told me about some excellent books they read in school this week: Under the Hijab, The Roots of Rap, My Papi has a Motorcycle, etc, and I am looking forward to reading these myself.
Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.