Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat: The Art of Dr. Seuss, by Caroline M. Smith

A few years ago (okay, probably closer to a decade now) there was an installation of the artwork of Dr. Seuss at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, near where I live. It was close to Christmas time and--if I'm remembering it correctly--it was around the same time that Ron Howard's movie version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas was in theatres. The entire bottom floor of the museum was transformed into a sort of Whoville, with murals large and small on the walls and various whimsical statues throughout. I was enchanted. That was the moment I became a fan of Dr. Seuss as an adult. I had certainly been a fan as a child, and I still enjoyed the Boris Karloff Grinch every year on TV, but seeing those illustrations and sculptures made me a true fan. I loved the black-and-white or limited colour sketches that were the earliest incarnations of characters that I knew and loved. I loved seeing the process of early sketches being turned into fully formed books. I loved the unabashed whimsy that was Dr. Seuss' trademark.

This was exactly the feeling I got when I opened Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat. The illustrations are gorgeous and inspiring and imagination-bending. The colours are fantastic and magical (I viewed it on my desktop computer instead of my e-reader for full effect). The artwork, much of which I don't think I've ever seen before, made me feel I was getting to know Dr. Seuss on a level I never before understood. 

But--for better or for worse--it's not just the artwork that reveals "the cat behind the hat." This book explores aspects of Ted Geisel that I'm not sure I wanted to know. His failed attempt at an adult book with cartoon nudity inspired by The Rape of the Sabine Women, for example. Or his long history with Standard Oil. Or his racist depiction of Japanese Americans, despite his vocal stance against racial bigotry. I know he wasn't perfect, nor is it reasonable to expect that he--or any hero--would be. It's just...I'm not sure I was ready for the curtain to be pulled back on this one.
My best advice? Buy the book. Treat it like a coffee table book if you prefer (or as inspiring desktop wallpaper if viewing it on your computer). Drink in the gorgeous illustrations and immerse yourself in whimsy. And, if you're feeling a little curious and a little brave, read a little more about the real Dr. Seuss. He was fascinating, if at times troubling. And if, like me, you find the details of his life too hard to resolve with your childhood memories of Green Eggs and Ham, simply go back to the artwork. It's worth it for that alone.

I should point out that I'm in no way implying that Dr. Seuss was a horrible person, just that he was, well, a person. Reading this book was a little like finding out that my kindergarten teacher uses the bathroom. Not awful, just hard to believe.

You might also like:

Dr. Seuss - Oh the Places You'll Go! Wall Quote (All About Vinyl)

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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