I wasn’t planning to talk about The Lorax

I wasn’t planning to write about Dr. Seuss. Volumes have been written about The Lorax. And it’s a bit obvious, eh?

But I’ve found that lately when I read contemporary books about the natural world with my children, and as I try to make sense of how these books inspire environmental activism, it’s a challenge not to talk about Dr. Seuss. In my family, The Lorax has become an important reference point.

When we recently visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History and saw the skeletons of extinct birds, my kids commented, “People weren’t being careful like the Once-ler and the birds went away.”  The Lorax provided a way to absorb meaning from the enormous word “extinction.”

When we read Claire A. Nivola’s *stunning* portrait of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Life in the Ocean (Frances Foster Books, 2012), we took in the mesmerizing image of a galaxy 3,000 feet down, where “every spoonful of water in the deep ocean, Sylvia says, is brimming with extraordinary forms of life.” We digested the statement, “Sylvia Earle believes that if we do not learn about the ocean world we will never really care about it or take care of it,” and we couldn’t help but talk about what went down with those Bar-ba-loots.

The Lorax came up again the other night when reading Sofia’s Dream by Land Wilson and illustrator Sue Cornelison (Little Pickle Press, 2010). It’s an imaginative, starry-eyed story about a girl who befriends the moon and takes a “giant leap” to see the environmental problems on our planet from the moon’s perspective. As we reached the conclusion, when Sofia commits herself to action, my kids recalled a certain Seuss character clutching a seed. (There’s a lot more relevant backstory on this book: Read more about Wilson’s approach to sharing this book and teaching kids about the environment. Also, the publisher Little Pickle Press has taken the significant step of structuring itself as a “B Corporation,” a new type of corporation that has social and environmental standards attached to it.)

Life in the Ocean and Sofia’s Dream are fabulous. They don’t need The Lorax to get their stories across. Rather, what I want to point out is that I’ve found my children are absorbing these texts in dialogue with the narrative elements of The Lorax. Seuss’s book is a seminal text, one with special powers to shape how they understand and describe environmental challenges. It’s now a part of their lexicon, whether they encounter an oceanographer exploring the deep sea or a girl looking at our planet from space. And I know their experience of this book is not unique.

Granted, The Lorax hit my kids hard, my two-year-old son in particular. It was the first and only book that has made him cry. (“I don’t want the Lorax to go away. I don’t want the Once-ler to make the water dirty for the fish. I don’t want the fish to leave.”)  Dr. Seuss is a genius for so many reasons, but here’s the one I’ll talk about: He created such a round, real villain that my two-year-old felt like he could talk directly to the Once-ler about taking responsibility for his actions. Because while my son liked the idea of a child replanting the trees, he wasn’t convinced that the Lorax would come back unless the Once-ler helped out too. So my son turned to the back page where the Once-ler peeks out a window and spoke in no uncertain terms: “Once-ler. Don’t make the water dirty. Don’t make the Lorax go away. Help clean up.”

It’s like magic when this happens – a book that still speaks to us, even when it’s closed… A book that even talks to the other books we read. (Don’t we all wish for a little sprinkling of that pixie dust in our writing?)

So this makes me wonder: What are the *big books* for the children in your life, the ones that have helped shaped their vocabulary about activism? Which narratives have the unique ability to help children digest complex environmental and social systems into a language they can use to talk about change?