I have a lot of respect for writers of children's books (except you, Margaret and H.A. Rey). In many ways, I think writing a book for the pre-literate (my daughter) and semi-literate is much harder than writing for an audience of people on your own level. Kids can only grasp so much in the way of nuance, theme, foreshadowing, character arc, conflict, and denouement. That said, it's a fool who underestimates the intelligence of a child, and few children's authors paid children more respect through their writing than Dr. Seuss.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Nobody needs to defend Dr. Seuss. Everybody loves that guy. I've written before about the superior qualities of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And everybody knows and loves the book Green Eggs and Ham. Scholastic named it the seventh best children's book of all time.
But here's my case for why it should actually be #1.
It's the Best Dr. Seuss BookIt's hard to argue that Theodor Geisel should be anywhere but at the top when it comes to the most influential and accomplished children's book writers. He wrote over 60 books and authored 16 of the top 100 best-selling children's books of all time. Before he was an author, he was a political cartoonist. Even with his early stuff, you can look at a drawing of his and identify it as "Suessian." His rhymes are legendary. He was the first children's author to include a character with flatulence. In my opinion, few writers of any genre better integrate morals and politics into otherwise fantastical stories (this is probably because, as Seuss claimed in a 1959 LIFE magazine feature, he never set out to send a message.)
I won't profess to have read all of Seuss' books, but I've read most them, and from every period of his career and every pen name he ever wrote under. Cat in the Hat is obviously memorable for introducing the Seuss mascot, though it leaves a bad Deux ex machina taste in my mouth. To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Hop on Pop, and One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish start straightforwardly enough before degenerating into random craziness. Fox in Socks is easily the most fun to read aloud. Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who, and The Lorax deal more bluntly with moral, political, and environmental issues.
But in terms of clear and linear storytelling that's both understandable and entertaining for all ages, Green Eggs and Ham is the best book from the best children's writer ever.
The Central ConflictNo, I don't mean the protagonist (who I'll call "Mike") and Sam-I-am. The central conflict underlying GE&H was a bet between Seuss and his publisher. Cat and the Hat (which, along with One Fish Two Fish, might be the only Seuss book more famous today than GE&H) was published three years earlier in 1957, and intentionally contained a vocabulary of basic, key English words. As a follow up, Seuss' publisher Bennett Cerf challenged Theo to write another book containing a fifth as many distinct words. Seuss accepted, and came up with a story using only these:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, youBy the way, did you know Geisel himself never had children and didn't even really like them that much? How on earth could such a person make a good children's writer? Maybe it's because he had no preconceptions about child psychology, and didn't feel the need to pander or talk down to his intended readers. On the flip side, with no kids, he had no built-in focus group turning his ideas to incoherent mush. Do these reasons alone make GE&H, or any other Seuss work, a great children's book? Not necessarily. But, whether you're talking Seuss or Fitzgerald, a good personal backstory is almost always a key ingredient in exceptional storytelling.
The StoryMike is sitting in his chair, reading the paper, not eating green eggs and ham. Sam-I-am thinks he should be. Mike, due to his apparent pre-existing dislike of Sam-I-am himself or to the disturbingly verdant hue of his wares, refuses to partake. The more he refuses, the more fervently Sam-I-am insists that he try it. At one point, the jaw of Sam-I-am falls very much agape at the mere possibility that Mike might not enjoy the taste of this green breakfast with no greens ("You...do not like green eggs and ham?") before he gets right back to pestering his poor target. Finally, after adventures by foot, car, rail, and boat, culminating in a shipwreck of both the boat and Mike's entire afternoon, Mike relents, only to find... Well, we'll get to that.
The SettingIt takes multiple readings to fully appreciate, but it's great fun to see the progression from Mike sitting in his chair to him storming away on foot to Sam-I-am essentially running him over in a car which then lands on a passenger train which then lands on a steamboat. No, this isn't Clifford the Big Red Dog expeditiously stumbling into traffic jams or structure fires or other situations where his bigness just happens to be an asset rather than an occasion to call the National Guard. In GE&H, there's an organic movement from location to location which only subtly calls attention to itself, even as the implausibility mounts.
Throughout the journey, there's plenty of signature Seuss touches like goats in cars and fox boxes hanging from trees and train tracks propped up on long broomsticks, all of it drawn by a hand which refuses to go a single nanometer in a straight line. Aside from the brilliant simplicity of the premise, the multiple tiers of visual and geographic zaniness which build throughout the book are easily the most Seussian thing about GE&H, and make some other classic Seuss stories like Cat seem quite housebroken in comparison.
The Stories within the StoryIt's amazing that such a simple story leaves so many unanswered questions. This intentional vagueness is something that's common in the best movies and books, but rare in children's stories. For example, in Alexander and the Terrible Day, et al, I never really cared what happened the day before or the day after. There are no lingering questions because every relevant aspect of the story is covered explicitly. I guess most authors assume kids can't handle the uncertainty.
But with GE&H, I'm always left wondering: What is the history between Mike and Sam-I-am? Is Mike constantly having strange foods foisted on him? What was it the day before, purple lasagna? Pink chicken and waffles? Is today's huevos verdes con jamón tomorrow's perros caliente azul con Ruffles? Mike's subsequent protestations clearly emanate from a damaged psyche that's travelled down this path of culinary harassment before, and Sam-I-am pounces on his frustration with the vigor of a monkey who just needs to bash the nut on the rock one more time before it finally splits open. Why does he do it? I can't say, but he's definitely come prepared, since he employs a whole herd of animals in his pursuit, including a fox, a mouse, and a goat (not a pig, though, because that would be awkward [/gaffiganvoice]).
Then there's the people on the train, who sit in utter contentment as a full-size automobile crash lands on top of their carriage car. How is it that they're so calm when so much madcap drama is happening above them? Their expressions, and the conductor's, never change, not even when the train plunges off a cliff into the ocean. In fact, the only time they break character is to add that little bit of intrigue during the deciding moment, when Mike spears one of those slippery green eggs and cracks a great big smile:
The "Happy Face"Goodnight Moon is simultaneously too physically restrictive and too whimsical. As a kid, The Giving Tree was always too stark and sad for me to want to make application of it. With Green Eggs and Ham, though, the take-home is simple: New things are fun! If you stick to the same ol' same ol', you'll probably miss out on something you like.
"Happy Face!" is the Heiress's term for what happens when Mike finally relents and tries the green eggs and ham. Her reaction comes from the story having the exact intended effect upon the exact intended audience, and it warms my belly in a way that's just like eating a satisfying breakfast. Of course, the real challenge is the theme that's central to the whole book: Will reading Green Eggs and Ham help convince the Heiress to try something new when it's put on her plate, even - or especially - if it's a different color or presentation than what she's used to? So far, so good. For breakfast one morning, Mrs. Oldmanshirt got her to try actual green eggs and ham. Since then, the Heiress has mastered potty training and started learning to ride a bike.
But I bought a goat anyway, just in case.