What is the Meaning Behind the Dr Seuss Books?

Everybody knows Dr Seuss books. They are part of childhood history.

But do you know what is the meaning behind the Dr Seuss books? Here are the stories behind some of the most popular in the Seuss library.

Dr Seuss wrote many of his books to be more than children’s beginner books. These “message books” were published after the Second World War and were meant to guide children into becoming thoughtful adults who would build a better world. You can see this dream in an essay he published in 1960, “children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which the future of this country will rise. Or not rise. …. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth.”


Of all the “message books’ Dr Seuss wrote the ones with the most obvious underlying social messages are:


  • Horton Hears A Who! (1954)
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)
  • Yertle the Turtle (1958)
  • The Sneetches (1961)
  • The Lorax (1971)
  • The Butter Battle Book (1984).


The Meaning of Yertle the Turtle


Yertle the Turtle seems to be a story about an egotistical turtle named Yertle. But it’s really a story based on the rise of Hitler (Yertle has been modelled on Hitler). This is probably the most known anti-Fascist story that has ever been written. In this story:


“That plain little turtle below in the stack,

That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack

Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.

And that plain little lad got a little bit mad.

And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.

He burped!

And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

It’s plain little Mack who burps and topples the turtle dictator of Yertle.



The Meaning of The Lorax


The Lorax is a story against the exploitation of the environment. It’s become a big icon for environmental protection. The imaginary character The Lorax has even been criticized by the logging industry. The Lorax (the book) is Dr Seuss’s only book to end up on the American Library Association’s Challenged and Banned Book List. (In order to preserve the freedom of people to read, the ALA keeps track of which books get challenged or removed from school lists and libraries. The ALA publishes an annual book list of these books and has a “Banned Books Week” which encourages people to “read a banned book.”



The Meaning of Horton Hears a Who


Horton Hears a Who! Dr Seuss wrote this book after ’ a trip to Japan. There he saw new changes in democracy and the rights of the individual.

In this message book it is the smallest Who called Jo-Jo who speaks out and makes the voice of the entire community of Whos heard.

When the Who community take to the streets to speak up they aren’t heard until the very smallest Who Jo-Jo speaks up. When the mayor tells him, “open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!,” little Jo-Jo shouts “YOPP!” and finally the Whos are heard. Then those who were indifferent to their needs decide to protect them. As Horton says,

“They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

When children read books with a message like Horton Hears a Who they learn that even smallish Whos and little turtles can speak out and make a difference to the world around them. This is a powerful lesson for children to learn.

Horton Hears a Who is also a book about discrimination. The Whos are people at risk because they are “different” – just because they are small. The book’s message – “A person’s a person, no matter how small” highlights how the tiny Whos are human so deserve equal rights. This lead one reviewer to say Horton Hears a Who! “offers a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights.”


Other Message Books

There have been other message books. My personal favorite is  The Sneetches. This story is about bigotry and was inspired by Dr Seuss’ opposition to anti-Semitism.. It shows children that how we look or what group we belong to should not define who we are friends with.

This final book is a later one, being written in 1984, and less know that the other message books by parents.

The Butter Battle Book satirical book about the nuclear weapons race. It shows the U.S. policy of Mutually Assured Destruction to be an embodiment of its abbreviation – MAD. This book was inspired by Seuss’ opposition to President Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the arms race.


Original version of this article was published in Child Parenting Journal. With thanks to Philip Nel, Kansas State University. 

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