I don’t remember much from kindergarten. We lived on Tobey Road in Belmont, Massachusetts, a little town next to Cambridge and just a mile from Boston, in an old house my parents, Uncle John, and their friends had spent months renovating. My mother had grown up here and we knew good people who would help out on the weekend for cold beer, subs, and a project.
I remember our dog Cullen, a young Irish Setter, chasing our school bus all the way to Winn Brook Elementary School. I didn’t see him and he didn’t manage to find me before I shuffled indoors, but he passed the morning playfully knocking toddlers over in Joey’s Park until my mortified mother got a phone call to please pick up her pup.
I remember not long before, my dad had volunteered to help build Joey’s Park, the sprawling and beautiful school playground designed by the children who missed Joey O’Donnell, a little Winn Brook boy who lost his battle with Cystic Fibrosis. If I’d been looking the day Cullen went on an adventure, I’d have seen him jumping up and sniffing every terrified little kid’s face until he found his kid, and sometimes my imagination pretends I did watch the chaos, giggling on my tip-toes in the second-story classroom window.
I remember we were studying Dr. Seuss when the teacher came in and told us he had passed away. I don’t remember any tears; we were children, and I was surprised to learn Dr. Seuss had been a living man like dad or my Papa just the day before. I had always assumed men as big as he — whose influence seemed everywhere in life — were men from a different age than mine, and couldn’t imagine having shared five years of my own lifetime with the Dr. Seuss whose drawings were on my classroom’s walls and whose lonely, animated mountaintop villain had tried to steal the Whos’ Christmas when my mother was still just a little girl.
I remember I was surprised, and I also remember that classroom at that exact moment. We were sitting cross-legged on the floor, the windows looking down on the playground on our right, the little area where I’d get in trouble for deconstructing cardboard building bricks to build robots just behind my teachers, and the door to the hall, left of that.
In the years that followed, Dr. Seuss stuck around. From “The Cat in the Hat” to Cindy-Lou Who, who was no more than two, and the Grinch himself, whose place in our hearts couldn’t even be stolen by Jim Carey. When I left home for the last time after graduating college, my neighbor Courtney gave me a copy of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” with a written inscription wishing me luck on my way.
Massachusetts is a special place for the stories we learned when we were young. Louisa May Alcott based “Little Women” on growing up in a brown Concord home a short walk from where my family lived when I was in third grade. In Boston Public Gardens, you can see the little bronze sculptures of eight baby ducklings following their mother, a tribute to Robert McCloskey’s 1941 classic “Make Way For Ducklings.” The men who hunted Moby Dick set sail from New Bedford.
I look forward to the day I have children of my own, but whether it’s an Ed Emberley book on how to draw a haunted house, my mother’s cookie recipes, or the bittersweet story of Mike Mulligan and his heroic steam shovel, at my rare sentimental moments I like to share the memories of childhood with the children of my friends.
On Tuesday morning, however, I was looking for myself when I scoured the internet for “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street,” an early Dr. Seuss book inspired by the Massachusetts town he’d grown up in.
I’d shopped for books for my godchildren and for my friends’ kids, but never before for the children I hope someday to have. Until Monday. But when I logged online, going through the catalogs of used bookstore after used bookstore, “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” was already selling for hundreds of dollars, and in some cases for thousands. On the way back from an errand, I stopped at the local children’s bookstore, but it was nowhere to be seen. The old used left-wing bookstore around the corner was closed, another business suffering in the COVID economy.
That morning was National Read Across America Day, commemorating Dr. Seuss’s birth 117 years ago. President Barack Obama began the tradition of issuing a White House proclamation on this day, never failing to pay homage to Dr. Seuss. In his final year in office, the president called him “one of America’s revered wordsmiths.” President Donald Trump continued in this way, with the first lady, an immigrant born in Soviet Europe, reading Dr. Seuss’s books to children in a hospital in 2017.
On Monday, President Joe Biden broke this short-lived but beautiful tradition. That’s fine. It’s stupid, but it’s fine. The same day, however, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that publishes his books, issued a statement saying that after consulting “a panel of experts,” they had decided to stop publishing the book I was looking for, along with the delightful “If I Ran The Zoo” and four others. “These books,” they wrote, “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Of course, no child thinks that. No one has ever been hurt by Dr. Seuss. Somebody somewhere did something to “the experts” who roam our society, imagining grievances, enforcing orthodoxies, ruining lives, banning children’s books, and literally stealing Christmas; somebody did something to kill their spirits, but it wasn’t Dr. Seuss, who never could have imagined the things he imagined filled his zoo would someday be banned by “experts” for being “hurtful and wrong.”
Now, unless something changes, neither my children nor any will be able to laugh and giggle at the whimsical and fantastical vehicles, parades, and creatures he saw in his zoo and on his old street. Now those memories will be the wards of collectors. Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to hold a thousand-dollar book, but we all can imagine their jealous owners frowning mightily at the thought of a child’s hands, sticky with candy or dirtied outside, bending back their precious pages.
We’ve seen bannings before. They seem to happen every day now, from Hollywood to the prairie to the pantry. Some of them are somehow stupider than others, even if they’re all wrong, like removing an American Indian woman from Land O’Lakes butter or banning Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. If the people who make the strange toy Mr. Potato Head want to make it stranger still, our lives are not really affected. But Dr. Seuss? He’s personal to all of us in our own ways.
He helped teach us to read. He celebrated our graduations. He was there at Christmastime. He shared his imaginary world with us. He brought happiness to people he never knew in places he never went long after he was gone. How many of us can say that for ourselves and truly believe it? Do these “experts” bring happiness to children? To anyone?
Dr. Seuss seemed like a mythical figure when I was a child, but he was a real man named Theodor Seuss Geisel, born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was a real man who felt real rejection, even walking home to burn his Mulberry Street manuscript after it was rejected by at least 20 different publishers. Generations of Americans would never have read it had a college friend not interceded and saved his story from destruction. Now the next generation won’t read it either.
Every day in America, panels of experts are hurting people, ending careers, ruining lives, erasing traditions, writing rules, rewriting history, and burning the leftovers. On Monday, they didn’t come for a stranger on the TV or a scholar in some distant academy, they came for us all. They came for our childhood memories and for our children, born and unborn. They came for Dr. Seuss.
Remember that next time they claim some moral authority over you. Remember the happy bits of your childhood when you look at them. Know them for exactly who they are. And pity them, these experts so lacking in the happiness of innocent imagination. You know their secret, but they know nothing of the joys a child holds in their heart. Teach your children who these experts are, and why they’re sad. But most importantly of all, teach them of your joys — and share with them those things that can never be taken.