The taste buds of millions of Americans who grew up on a literary diet of "green eggs and ham" must have perked up last week when the Pulitzer committee awarded a special citation to their favorite chef, Dr. Seuss.
For almost half a century Theodor Seuss Geisel has concocted children's books that are scrumptiously silly and nutritiously sane. At 80 years old, with 100 million books sold, he has served up characters as memorable as Yertle the Turtle, Horton and the Whos, and the Grinch who stole Christmas.
Yet, despite solid credentials as a certified Seuss fan who has devoured the Dr.'s entire menu, I have to say that the most recent Seuss creation is a touch sour for my palate. "The Butter Battle Book," currently No. 2 on the best-seller list, is a parable about the arms race that sings with Seuss satire. This time West and East, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R., are cast as the Yooks and the Zooks. They are enemies because, you see, the Zooks eat their bread with the down side buttered while the Yooks keep their butter side up.
The trouble begins when a Zook uses a slingshot against the Yook's best weapon, a Snick-Berry Switch. Soon, the arms race and the rhyme race are off and running. The leaders build bigger and deadlier weapons with names no more improbable than our MX "Peacekeeper": a Triple-Sling Jigger and a Jigger-Rock Snatchem, a Kick-a-Poo Kid and an Eight-Nozzled, Elephant-Toted Boom-Blitz.
Inevitably, they come up with the bomb: the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo. At the end, we have a Yook and a Zook confrontation on the wall separating the two countries. Each is holding a pink hand-sized bomb that can obliterate the other, while a Yook grandson is watching.
As the last page reads in its entirety:
"Grandpa!" I shouted. "Be careful! Oh, gee!
"Who's going to drop it?
"Will you . . . Or will he? . . ."
"Be patient," said Grandpa, "We'll see. We will see . . ."
I feel strange criticizing Dr. Seuss on the arms race. I love the lilt and language of his parable. I shall never again be able to read about nuclear weapons without thinking of the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo.
Geisel is no pacifist. During World War II he served in Frank Capra's signal corps unit making patriotic films, including one called "Designed for Death," a history of the Japanese people. Now he sees that people may fight according to which side their bread is buttered on.
But what disturbs me is that ending. A child is left helplessly watching and waiting to see whether or not the adults blow up the world. I worry about the effect this bleak non-ending, this anxiety-ridden non-conclusion, would have on kids.
The portrait, I know, is close to reality. Perhaps the reason why many adults are buying "The Butter Battle Book" for themselves is that we feel as helpless as children in the face of the arms race. Even Dr. Seuss seems dismayed. "I was tempted to give it a happy ending," he said of the book, "but then I would have gotten into dishonesty. That's the situation as it is."
Still, I wonder whether many of us today justify passing on messages of pessimism and anxiety to our children in the name of honesty. Consider what's missing from this "realism"; consider what's missing from the Yook-Nook arms race; dissent. Not once throughout the tale does someone call for a halt. The Yooks don't march for peace, they march into shelters. The adults are either dangerous or passive. There are no freeze messages or disarmament conferences or Dr. Seusses for that matter.
Psychiatrist Eric Chivian, who has filmed children talking about nuclear war from California to Moscow, says: "I think it's really important for kids to be given unambiguous and positive messages that are coupled with a call to action. When kids ask me if there will be a nuclear war, I say I don't think so because so many people are working against it."
Is he a cockeyed optimist? What is the point of passing pessimism to our children? To prepare them for the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo? We already are dealing with the syndrome of "futurelessness" in our children. The antidote is activism. Theirs and ours.
Dr. Seuss's portrait of the present--two old enemies standing poised on the wall and on extinction--is an accurate one. But what children need from the good doctor, from all adults, is a dose of hope.