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Serious Seuss: Children's author as political cartoonist

Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, above, and Adolph Hitler, on whom the turtle character was loosely based  

October 17, 1999
Web posted at: 10:24 p.m. EDT (0224 GMT)

By Correspondent Chuck Roberts

(CNN) -- Dr. Seuss may best be remembered for his children's books. But there was time when the author was writing and drawing political cartoons for an adult audience.

Long before Seuss, whose real name is Theodor Geisel, penned "Yertle the Turtle" and "The Cat in the Hat," he drew Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.

In 1941, Geisel was an advertising cartoonist and had published a handful of books for children. But events in Europe took him on a detour.

"He got angry at an Italian spokesman for Mussolini and drew a cartoon about that fellow (Mussolini). That found its way to the newspaper PM, which was a New York newspaper," historian Richard Minear said.

"They liked it and that was the beginning of two years of editorial cartoons," said Minear, who collected nearly 200 of the cartoons into a new book called "Dr. Seuss Goes to War."

Geisel's cartoons concern rather sober topics, but the artistic style resembles his more popular works. Faces, figures and backgrounds display remarkable similarities to the unique worlds he created for children.

VideoChildren's author Theodore Geisel was also a prolific wartime editorial cartoonist. CNN's Chuck Roberts reports.
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Some early drawings warned of the dangers of fascism. He satirized isolationists, taking on heroes like Charles Lindbergh, the U.S. aviator who piloted the first solo direct flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Geisel also drew cartoons about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, an act of aggression that settled the debate over whether the United States should enter World War II.

Other cartoons attacked wartime prejudice. "One of his effective cartoons shows Uncle Sam urging war producers, and the war producer is sitting in front of an organ, to use the black keys as well as the white, an early ebony and ivory use of the piano in black/white relations," Minear said.

Geisel was not so kind to Japanese-Americans. One cartoon, portraying them as stooges for the Japanese government, appeared days before the U.S. government approved orders to send them to internment camps.


CNN's Chuck Roberts leads into Richard Minear's explanation of Yertle the Turtle's origins

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"I've looked at it for a long time. I want to see some irony or some distance that Dr. Seuss is depicting prejudice rather than endorsing it. But I can't find that irony and that distance," Minear said.

Geisel's wartime experiences influenced his books for children. "Horton Hears a Who" is a parable about post-war relations between the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union. "Yertle the Turtle" pokes fun at those who want to rule the world.

"I've read that to my kids any number of times without thinking of Yertle as Hitler. But in an interview much later, Dr. Seuss said yes, when he first drew that cartoon, the turtle had a brush mustache," Minear said.

Seuss has inspired generations to read. Minear's book, however, could inspire the author's admirers to read between the lines.

Millions celebrating Dr. Seuss with 'Read Across America'
March 3, 1999

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