No collection of picture-books would be complete without Dr. Seuss. Of the 100 best-selling children’s books of all-time, Seuss wrote 16 of them, for crying out loud! The books are whimsical, they use language creatively, they have playful illustrations, and many of them have morals you probably want to instill in your kids. When you think back to books you read when you were young, you probably remember some Seuss in there, and for good reason.
But I couldn’t bring myself to write about a lot of them. The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who are lovely, but you probably already know them pretty well. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is adorable, but there’s not much to say about it. If you graduated from anything in the last ten years you probably have a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go already. And while Green Eggs and Ham is a consistent hit with the kids, if I have to read it more than once in a sitting I feel giving Sam I Am a punch on the nose myself. There are some lesser-known Seuss books, though, that deserve a little more attention, and a place on any child’s bookshelf.
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was Dr. Seuss’ first published book, way back in 1937, and it’s completely charming. A little boy thinks about what to tell his dad about his day, and keeps embellishing his story until it includes an amazing parade with elephants and airplanes and confetti. The illustrations are amazing, and it’s hard to read it without raising your voice in excitement. But the excitement is tempered at the end, when the boy sits down in front of his down-to-earth dad and is too embarrassed to say his great ideas. There’s resonance for kids, who often feel adults don’t understand them, and a lesson for adults about unintentionally squelching children’s enthusiasm. The book holds up on repeated readings not just because the fun parts are fun, but because you can so clearly see the progression of the boy’s ideas and emotions. (Disclaimer: There are a few old-fashioned racial stereotypes in here; most notably the illustration of the “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” in the parade. They’re not enough to make me want to remove the book from my classroom or bookshelf, but you should be aware of them, be prepared to discuss them with older children.)
Seuss’ second published work, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), is the only one I know of his that’s not written in verse. It’s just a good old-fashioned fantasy about a boy who, every time he tries to take off his hat for the king, finds another hat underneath. It’s enjoyably silly, with just a hint of the fear kids can feel when things in life aren’t going according to their plans. The fine illustrations are all black and white, except for the red hats.
And The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961). Okay, yes, you probably already know The Sneetches, with stars upon thars. But I like it more than Seuss’ other moral-driven books, like The Lorax, which can feel awfully preachy. Good lessons for kids about discrimination, and even better ones about consumerism, but I don’t feel so hit over the head by them. And I think the language use in this one is some of Seuss’ most carefully constructed and cleverest. And you also get three bonus stories in this book, including the truly marvelous “Too Many Daves” (the full text of which can be found at The Poetry Foundation).
If I Ran the Circus (1956) goes in the hooray-for-imagination category of Seuss books, along with If I Ran the Zoo and McElligot’s Pool, as well as the too-too Oh, the Things You Can Think. But to me Circus is the best of them, because it reflects the kinds of things kids actually think about. Or, to be fair, the kinds of things I thought about when I was a kid. And still do, really. Look, an empty lot! I could do such great things with that empty lot! I’d put a circus in there! And my friend could sell the balloons, and do the canonball act! And there’d be acrobats and funny creatures! If I Ran the Circus is charming and energetic and creative, but all in a way that feels familiar and relatable too.
And finally, Oh Say Can You Say? (1979), Seuss’ book of tongue-twisters, is perhaps my favorite of his, not because kids love it, but because I love to read it. When you read lots of books to children, some of them over and over again, you’ve got to find the ones that give you pleasure as well. Sure, some of them you love the story, and some the illustrations, and some have bits that are aimed over kids’ heads at the adults reading. But this one is fun for me because it’s an honest-to-goodness challenge to read. The tongue-twisters are actually hard! You’ll probably mess them up the first few times! It makes me laugh to try to read them, and every time I get through “East Beast, West Beast” without stumbling I feel a little surge of accomplishment. And this is not to say that kids don’t enjoy the silly words and pictures—they do, of course. But this is one I pull out when I feel like it.
So hey, think about going out and getting these ones to sit next to The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They’re worth it.