Sam McManis

Discoveries: Redding's Turtle Bay museum has him: Dr. Seuss

REDDING – I am Sam. Sam I am.

And, boy, I cannot tell you how many times, as a wee lad in the schoolyard, I heard that singsong, green-eggs-and-ham rhyme and the inevitable query about my preference for said culinary delicacy. That's how thoroughly Dr. Seuss permeated the culture back in the day.

Happy to report that, even today, the wit, wisdom and colorful artistic flourishes of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a., Dr. Seuss) still holds the under-4-foot set in thrall.

And, interesting to note, it seems adults remain drawn to the drawings and stories of arguably America's finest children's author.

In fact, many now interpret the work as if taking a Rorschach test, divining social, political or religious overtones and layers of meaning where, perhaps, none exists.

A quick detour off Interstate 5 in Redding to see the Turtle Bay Exploration Park's current exhibit of Seuss' work – definitely worth the time; and, c'mon, why're you in such a hurry to get to Oregon, anyway? – not only will harken childhood reveries but give you pause.

It's not a loss-of-innocence experience; nothing that heavy. But seeing Seuss' work through adult eyes can be, well, eye-opening. What's on display through April 15 is not just the famous books and characters (the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Cindy Lou Who, the aforementioned Sam I Am) but, ahem, adult work Seuss produced as an editorial cartoonist, magazine illustrator and advertising pen-for-hire.

I'm pretty sure none of the 60 elementary school kids touring the museum the day I showed up lingered too long at Seuss' early magazine work (Vanity Fair, Life) from the 1930s, including a provocative, one-panel cartoon for Judge magazine showing a corpulent king on a throne of pillows with a scantily-clad harem at his feet an an oracle reading from a scroll. The caption: "It says here, Oh Most Exalted One, that under technocracy, one man shall do the work of many."

The unsettling part (and I might need therapy for this) is that the buxom harem all had faces like the women of Whoville.

Geisel's pre-children's-book verse is no less PG-13 rated. The exhibit shows a copy, in Seuss' scrawl, of his first poem. It's a naughty limerick too bawdy for the delicate reader sensibilities.

"Well," said Redding resident Dennis Smith, checking out the "adult" work as his 13-year-old daughter was clicking on iPad Seuss books across the way, "I guess everyone's got to start somewhere."

True. Geisel received 27 rejection slips before he ever published his first children's book, so a guy's gotta pay the bills some way. During World War II, he penned political cartoons for various publications, some quite socially pointed. In April, 1942, one cartoon called "Discriminating Employer" shows a top-hatted capitalist astride a giant tank, pulling along smaller tanks manned by people with the identifier "Jewish Labor" and "Negro Labor." Caption: "I'll run Democracy's War. You stay in your Jim Crow Tanks."

Such sentiments subtly inform his later children's stories. Geisel, both as himself and under the guise of Seuss, addresses class inequality (or class warfare, as some might say today) in works such as "Yertle the Turtle," about a high-handed, overreaching king brought down by the uprising of his minions.

Kids, of course, are mostly oblivious to such deeper meanings. Six-year-old Maleah Halkides of Redding said she most liked getting her picture taken with a life-size Cat in the Hat statue, and pal Mya Lewis said in a shy, small voice, "My favorite is 'Green Eggs and Ham.' "

After the student tours ended, though, a smaller group of "school" folks arrived – a half-dozen art and drama professors from Shasta College.

"It's a good exhibit for this community because some of the topics, if you really look at the work, there's a strong message there," David Gentry said.

"Oh, definitely," interjected Mark Perko, a Shasta County artist, "you look at 'Green Eggs and Ham' in context with the era (early 1960s) and it totally has to do with the color issue."

People left and right of the political spectrum have often appropriated Seuss.

"Green Eggs and Ham," for instance, has been embraced by the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement and by Freudian analysts (the latter because of the symbolism of the egg and meat and green meaning new life).

Pro-life groups have adopted "Horton Hears a Who!" as a rallying cry because the eponymous elephant exclaims, "A person's a person, no matter how small." Connie Lewis, 39, Mya's mom, subscribes to that belief:

"I know on, I think, 'Entertainment Tonight,' Dr. Seuss' widow said it wasn't about abortion, but I'm thinking, 'How could it not be?' Even if it didn't mean to be, it still has that same moral."

(For the record, Geisel's widow, Audrey, told NPR in 2007 that the book is not an anti-abortion parable.)

Politics aside – really, who wants to get bogged down in such Grinchian matters in such a festive museum? – what Seuss wanted was for people to retain or recapture a sense of childlike wonder.

The last word, then, goes to a first-grader, Caroline, who wrote this in the Turtle Bay visitors book after a Seussian morning:

"I love the eczibet. I can't believe I got to see the Cat in the Hat. Thanks bye."


Turtle Bay Exploration Park 840 Auditorium Drive, Redding

Dates: Through April 15

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m. -4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Adults $14; children and seniors $10

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 to the Central Redding exit (No. 678); take Highway 44 West to Sundial Bridge Auditorium Drive (Exit 1); turn right to Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

Travel time: 3 1/2 hours from Sacramento

Reason to go: Kids of all ages love Dr. Seuss, but the more adult artwork of Theodor Geisel will surprise you.

What else to do: The Turtle Bay Exploration Park also features a fly fishing exhibit (through April 15), in addition to the Sundial Bridge, botanical gardens and children's play area.

Editor's note: This story was changed March 14 to correct admission prices.