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Read Between the Lines: 10 Classic Kids' Books With Delightfully Subversive Subtext

Feb 16 2016 - 11:46am

Lewis Carroll, beloved author of Alice in Wonderland, once wrote that "words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means." A highly appropriate quote from a man whose work has been interpreted as everything from an LSD-laden parable to an homage to mathematical logic. Like beauty, meaning is often found in the eye of the beholder, and this is certainly true when it comes to deciphering the hidden meanings — if any — found in some of the most wildly popular kids' books. Morality tales have always been a major cannon in children's literature, but plenty of tomes for tots take a more subtle approach to tackling the social and political issues of the day, leaving them wide open to interpretation. Keep reading for the real stories lurking between the lines of some of your favorite bedtime classics.

The Lorax

Written in 1971, The Lorax [1] ($15) tackles the very topical issues of environmentalism and corporate greed in one of Dr. Seuss's slightly more obvious tales. The author pointedly displays how the shortsightedness and greed of the Once-ler is responsible for the destruction of the Truffula forest and for the pollution of the air and water.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Before the Grinch was co-opted by Jim Carrey [2], he was the surly character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! [3] ($15), a denouncement of the unchecked capitalism and materialism surrounding the Christmas season.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Long before the 1939 film version made Dorothy and Co. household names, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [4] ($28) was a children's book first published in 1900. Some scholars have argued that the book is an allegorical representation of the gold standard debate, but the book's author, L. Frank Baum, never publicly acknowledged this theory.

Horton Hears a Who!

Horton Hears a Who! [5] ($15) takes on yet another cultural conflict: the post-World War II occupation of Japan by the United States.

Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

Saving the subtleties for his lil readers, Seuss sent a copy of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! [6] ($9) to his buddy at The Washington Post with Marvin K. Mooney crossed out and replaced with Richard M. Nixon. With Seuss's permission, columnist Art Buchwald printed the altered version in a 1974 article, "Richard M. Nixon Will You Please Go Now!" [7] leaving no doubt to the author's opinion of the ousted president.

Curious George

Insatiable curiosity is one of tots' most endearing — and exhausting — qualities — a quality shared with the original mischievous little monkey, Curious George [8] ($8). Written in 1941 by a German Jew who escaped the Nazis with little more than his watercolors and bicycle, George's curiosity gets him in heaps of trouble, but readers can't help but root him on.

Knowing the background, doesn't the original cover (pictured) seem scarily evocative of Nazi S.S. Guards?

The Sneetches

The Sneetches [9] ($15) is Seuss's rumination on race relations and tolerance, particularly anti-Semitism.

The Little Engine That Could

“I think I can — I think I can — I think I can.” Long before Thomas and Percy were unleashed on society, The Little Engine That Could [10] ($18) sputtered her way up the mountain, coming to the rescue of her fellow female engine who had broken down in the midst of an important toy and food delivery. Viva la sisterhood!

Yertle the Turtle

Ultimately destroyed by his delusions of grandeur, Yertle the Turtle [11] ($15) is so power hungry that he demands his loyal turtle subjects stack themselves up, enabling him to perch on top, claiming "I’m ruler of all that I see. But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me." Written in 1958, Yertle is believed to represent Adolf Hitler's totalitarian regime, but as a symbol of evil dictators, Yertle works for all the biggies — Stalin, Mussolini, and Hussein.

The Butter Battle Book

The Butter Battle Book [12] ($15) is by far Seuss's most blatant antiwar satire. One of his last works, written in 1984 as a reaction to the Cold War, it discusses a longstanding battle between the Yooks and the Zooks over the issue of buttering bread — a clearly senseless topic where no one side is clearly in the wrong. One of Seuss's most criticized works, opponents argue that the book is too soft on communism and thereby inherently anti-American.

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