An Evaluation of Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book according to criteria for children’s fiction

Author: Quintus van Rensburg
2011

The journey from child to lifelong reader often starts with a favourite book. Then follows the realization that there is loads of interesting books, which poses the problem: How do I find it? Slowly but surely you learn to traverse the library landscape, finding order in what initially seemed like a huge pile of books.

This is the purpose of selecting books for children; getting them to read, helping them find out what their interests are, assisting them in the use of books and libraries, creating skillful library users.

To quote a Dr. Suess poster:

The more that you read,
The more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
The more places you’ll go!

What is children’s literature? While theoretical definitions abound, essentially F.J. Harvey Darton’s words from 1932 still holds truth: “… printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, nor solely to make them good, not to keep them profitably quiet.”.

Generally this type of literature approaches reality from the child’s point of view. Not only should the content reflect the child’s world, but also the format in which it is presented. Children’s literature should address the needs and wants of a child.

The content of children’s literature caters for limited experience and emotional response. Because of this lack of experience, a child will expect the author to use words he or she understands and be able to communicate an idea successfully in a different, childlike, way. This literature reflects the world around us, but without cynicism or clinical analysis.

We start our approach in one of two categories when selecting material for children; fiction and nonfiction. Both fiction and nonfiction can be subdivided further into different categories. Children’s fiction can be divided into picture books, traditional literature, fantasy and realistic stories. Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, by Dr. Seuss (1962), can be categorised as a picture book. Picture books are visual works of art that use pictures and text to tell a story.

When evaluating fiction we look for specific elements, no matter what the literary quality: plot, characterization, theme, setting, style and format. Added to this in children’s fiction is from which point of view the story is being told.

Point of view
As in many of a Dr. Seuss’ books there is narrator in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, an omniscient one in this case. This presence describes the characters and their actions. The description of the characters is not that detailed, because the text is supported by illustrations and it is left to the imagination of the reader to fill in the gaps.

Style
Dr. Seuss has a unique style, a combination of rhyme and rhythm. He employs certain elements in the text to work in combination with the rhymes to create rhythm and a sense of forward motion. He starts with a very small character on the first page, “a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck”, illustrated in a very simple setting. From this point forward every page adds something extra, new characters grow bigger and the illustrations more elaborate. The narrator also keep score, continuously adding to the “Who’s Asleep Count”. The descriptions of all the sleepers are funny, adding to the appeal of the content.

The rhyming of Dr. Seuss makes the book also a fun tool for practicing reading aloud and developing reading skills.

Theme
The theme of Dr. Seuss Sleep Book is sleep. The book is perfect to read at bedtime as the narrator talks to the reader as if he, or she, is about to go to bed, but never in a condescending way. The suggestion is that sleep is important, everybody goes to sleep, and even the silliest of creatures understand that they have to sleep. The content is easily comprehended, making the book not only good reading material for children, but, with the help of the illustrations, also a great book to read to younger children.

The aim is to provide the child with a good reason to go to sleep, to accept sleep as a part of their daily routine. The theme is also reinforced by the illustrations.

Plot
The narrator in Dr. Seuss Sleep Book describes how sleep spreads through the world. How more and more creatures fall asleep, starting with the small Van Vleck and near the end even “every whale in the ocean has turned off his spout.”

Throughout the book a score is kept of the amount of sleepers. Every turn of the page brings a new scenario of fantastical creatures that are going to bed. At the end there is a sense of urgency and expectation before the climax where the narrator waits for the reader to go to sleep.

Characterisation
The characters in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book are mostly imaginary, except for recognizable animals and the reader, who is drawn into the story in the conclusion. The characters are fun, zany creations with names like Biffer-Baum Birds, Hinkle-Horn Honkers and the Foona_Lagoona Baboona. They cover a broad spectrum of characteristics. This should make it easy for children of different cultures and gender to relate to them. Some have names, weird and funny sounding, almost similar to human names, but different in a funny way, like Snorter McPhail. They remind you of soft toys, something you can hug; a characteristic that makes them approachable to a child. The characters find themselves in situations that mimic the human world and hold human occupations like milkman, barber and fisherman; this may help to make them appear believable. At some point they sing songs that may sound vaguely familiar to American children: “Dixie” and “Swanee River”. The animals that are used near the end also provide a connection with the world of the child.

All the characters find themselves in the same situation, they are about to go to sleep, a situation children can relate to. It might even be that the child reads or hears the story at bedtime. The end action for every described character is the same – sleep. The suggestion is that every night the same ritual plays itself out in the world, a ritual in which the reader is part of a group of different and amazing beings. The focus is on a very simple, common denominator in every character that everyone shares, and children can easily understand – sleep.

Setting
The setting is provided by the illustrations. It is mostly imaginary creations, but some elements of the illustrations are similar to that of the world of the child. I think the most important part of many of the illustrations is the bed. The bed in the fantasy world is a human bed. In my view this helps establish a connection between the reader and the creatures and help makes the story believable. For most of the book a different scenario unfolds as you turn the page. The setting of each scenario is the same: someone or something is sleeping or about to go to sleep.

Maybe less so, but also of help, is elements that are vaguely familiar to their human counterparts. Houses look almost like ours, plants are everywhere and things that might be plants, or at least remind us of plants. I also like the fact that the moon and stars makes an appearance from time to time, reinforcing the theme.

Some place names are funny, while some reference is made to real nearby places that may be familiar to children in some cultures. Dr. Seuss uses Reno, Rome and Fort Knox.

Format
Dr. Seuss Sleep Book is an odd size, 16,5 cm x 22, 5 cm. I take it that this size is popular with children, because the publisher has not adjusted it in more than 50 years.

The front page features an attractive design with some of Dr. Seuss’ creatures sleeping on nests perched on a barber pole. The picture should appeal to children. All sides of the cover features red and white stripes, something associated with the Dr. Seuss books. There is also a picture of the Cat in the Hat on both the front and back. The cat and the stripes are associated with Dr. Seuss and will help children, who are familiar with the brand, to make a quick decision on whether to read the book.

The illustrations are in the unique style of Dr. Seuss and form a well balanced work with his unique style of writing and the cover.

It is a good quality book, good quality paper that is glued together. The printing is of good quality, but I do doubt the use of what seems like the Times New Roman font. A less formal font might be more appropriate. The colour of the font is black throughout the book. It might be a good idea to change the colour of the font on some of the darker pages. The pages of the book are multicoloured and not numbered.

Dr. Seuss’ book fluctuates effortlessly between the real and the imaginary. I can imagine that this is very stimulating and fun for children – and some adults. I think I will now go read my copy again.