Books are mute as far as sound is concerned. It follows that reading aloud is a combination of two distinct operations, of two ‘languages.’ It is something far more complex than speaking and reading taken separately by themselves.
Elementary schools all across America will be celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday today. This tradition began after I was in elementary school, and even though he’s not a real doctor (haha), I’ll get on board with any day that celebrates reading. I would argue, however, Dr. Seuss should not be read to your infant.
The genius of Dr. Seuss books is not that they massage the imagination like so many other children’s stories; it’s the manipulation of language and linguistic norms that make them so fun. The infant is still acquiring language and so the absurdity that makes Dr. Seuss so fun is lost on him or her.
As parents, we try to expose our little ones to the proper use of language, correct use of grammar, and even languages outside our native tongue. All of this helps your child deepen and solidify the linguistic neural networks they will build on their entire lives.
This idea was first introduced to me by Mem Fox, author of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.
She didn’t call out Dr. Seuss specifically, but she did mention we should look for books that make linguistic sense to our little ones. When in real life, she asked, do we utter the phrase, “See Spot run”? No one talks like that, so why are we pretending it’s normal?
She writes, “The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone not by the child alone nor by the adult who’s reading aloud. It’s the relationship winding between all three bringing them together in easy harmony.”
This got me thinking, but it wasn’t until we read Dr. Seuss aloud to our son that I realized exactly what she was talking about. He hated Fox in Socks. Maybe it’s because as parents we find it difficult to explain the mad, mad world of Dr. Seuss. You don’t explain madness, you enjoy it, right? But maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, it’s because there was almost nothing on those pages that resonates with anything my son already knew about the world. There was no foundation. He was simply too young.
We are constantly explaining the world to him and he is far more aware of linguistic norms than we probably realize. I started to notice how much he loves the stories in the books we tell him, but when he was a baby, alphabet books didn’t do much for him. My best guess is because only one word is on each page. Early on, he also protested when we read Little Blue Truck, a book he grew to deeply enjoy around a year. The initial distaste, though, was probably because the story doesn’t use complete sentences.
I’m in no way opposed to Dr. Seuss for older children. I’m looking forward to when we can enjoy Green Eggs in Ham, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but I am content to wait until he will appreciate these books for all of their linguistic absurdities. A friend who is also an early childhood educator said my instinct here was spot on. She advises parents to wait until their child is at least four to read Dr. Seuss.
Whether it’s our fault he hated Dr. Seuss when he was a baby, or the books themselves, we’ll never really know. I tend to agree with Mem Fox, though, in that the combination of the adult reading aloud, the child, and the book each contribute to the magic of his literary experience. If you decide to read Dr. Seuss to your little one, just keep in mind there are challenges. They are not an easy read. They are difficult for your little one to understand because at such a young age, they have nowhere in their mental filing cabinets to place most of what is on the pages of those books. It doesn’t resonate.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to you and the enjoyment you find in reading these books to your child and relishing in the nostalgia of your own childhood will overwhelm your family’s reading experience. I respect that. I honor that. For those of you who think I might be on to something, we have plenty of time to enjoy Dr. Seuss with our children. There is absolutely no rush.