Dr. Seuss is one of the few artifacts of my childhood that I continued to respect well into adulthood. In fact, as a grown-up, I have an even better appreciation for how amazingly cool his stuff was. First, there was the surreal, whimsical artwork, which is distinct in any context. He’s had many imitators, but none have quite managed to capture the strange beauty of his work, which made even the oddest things seem like they had weight and reality to them. If you’ve ever wondered what Dr. Seuss’ world would look like in 3D, seek out the 1950s live-action movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
But more importantly, he was one of those adults who didn’t talk down to his audience of youngsters, which is why grown-ups like me can still look at his work not only with love, but with respect.
Which brings us to the “new” Dr. Seuss book, What Pet Should I Get?, released yesterday by Random House. It’s not really new, of course. Theodore Geisel died way back in 1991; What Pet Should I Get? was written over 50 years ago. Geisel’s widow discovered it among his belongings in 2012, so here we are. Much as I love the Dr. Seuss oeuvre, I have to admit that I have mixed feelings. For one thing, I’m always a little disturbed by rummaging through an author’s leftovers when they’re not able to advocate for their own vision, whether because they’re dead or because of the fragility of age. (As some have claimed about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.)
But as whimsical as his worlds were, Geisel was always known for using his books to advocate for a better world here in our own reality. In the case of What Pet Should I Get?, the politics of getting a pet seem to be very outdated.
The book itself has a simple plot: A brother and sister are browsing through a pet store, desperately trying to decide what kind of pet they’d like to take home. They see a cat, a dog, a bunny, a fish — and have a difficult time making up their minds. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, they do make a choice, but readers will have to decide for themselves what they decide on. The Boston Globe describes the ending as the children walk out of the store with a basket: “The lid, lifted slightly, reveals only a pair of eyes, leaving readers to make up their own minds about what pet Kay and her brother get.”
Although it’s easy to imagine yourself in such a situation, it’s not an ideal one. Pet stores may once have seemed like idyllic, innocent places, but the facts no longer support that. With the exception of retail adoption centers, the animals come direct from professional breeders and farms who often raise them in inhumane conditions. While it’s true that puppy mills get the bulk of the press, kitten mills do exist, and they’re no less gruesome. Meanwhile, thousands of cats and dogs linger in shelters and foster homes, waiting for the day that they’ll get to move into a forever home.
If you feel like buying What Pet Should I Get? for your child, I’m not going to say outright not to do it, but it might be better to view it as a teaching opportunity. In its way, the pet shop the book portrays is as fantastic and impossible as the vistas in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, and it would be worthwhile to explain that to children while reading the book to them. Then, take them out to the local shelter to get their own pet.