Saving the Trees
April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments
Earlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.
The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending.
“How many of you already know The Lorax?” I began, and nearly all the hands in the class shot up. It quickly became apparent, though, that most were referring not to the book but to having seen the movie. Watch the movie and you lose the power of Dr. Seuss’ language—a language bursting with similes, alliteration, and onomotopoeia (how’s that for National Poetry Month?), that sings as it soars in excitement and dips in solemnity, that effortlessly invents words like “biggering,” “gluppity gluck,” and “snergelly” and leaves you wondering why you haven’t been using those words all your life. I’m not going to lie: I pretty much rock at reading The Lorax. This is largely because my children ask to hear it constantly, and because it is admittedly so darn long that I have to entertain myself to stave off the dread of another reading.
My son, who is now five and was one of the youngest in the audience today, started demanding this story over three years ago (at first, he was merely enticed by the Dr. Seuss anthologies that were mine as a little girl and whose matte, tattered, and musty smelling covers so differ from the other books on his shelf). During our early readings of The Lorax, as much as JP would fall under the spell of Seuss’ rhythm and word play, it was always clear that the content was over his head (at one point, as I was wrapping up a particularly stirring rendition, he turned and said blankly, “What’s a Lorax?”). If you want to penetrate a child’s heart and mind with a tale such as this, if you’re going for an enduring reaction, you’ll need to read this story to the elementary crowd—and that’s just what I did today.
It never fails to amaze me how smart kids are. This afternoon’s children didn’t miss a beat, picking up on complex themes such as greed (“He kept chopping down those trees to make more money,” one explained, when asked about the Once-ler’s motives), in addition to scientific concepts like pollution and sustainability (“He dumped all that icky stuff into the rivers and then the fish couldn’t breathe the water so they had to get out and walk on land and fish aren’t supposed to walk on land so they looked so sad like this” (insert downcast eyes and hunched shoulders)).
“Do you think the Once-ler was a bad person or did he make a mistake?” I posed. Their unanimous answer—“He just made a mistake!”—says something, not only about how naturally forgiving children are, but also about their ability to recognize the vilified Once-ler as human. We all make mistakes, but it’s what we learn from our mistakes and how we apply that learning to our future actions that ultimately defines our character. And it’s never too late. Referencing that last Truffula Tree seed that the boy now holds in his hand, the Once-ler whispers, “Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”
Other Favorites About Saving Trees and the Dangers of Urbanization:
The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest, by Lynne Cherry (Ages 5-10)
The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton (Ages 4-8)
Window, by Jeannie Baker (Ages 4-8)
(see other great tree books from an earlier post here)