I do not like that Dr Seuss | Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes
The Cat in the Hat. ‘Have you tried to read these books? Aloud?’ Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

If I live in America until the end of my days, there will still be things I don’t understand. Saturday Night Live, for example. Unless you grew up watching it, it is almost impossible to find funny, except in very short bursts. Or the appeal of Hershey’s chocolate, which to non-Americans smells like vomit.

And then there is Dr Seuss. The works of this “beloved children’s author”, as he is inevitably described, are considered unimpeachably brilliant in the US, all whimsy and fun, as magical as Lewis Carroll but with the free spirit of Tom Sawyer. Until last week, I had never read them, but I assumed, as everyone said, they were sheer delight.

One of the joys of being in a country other than one’s own is the discovery of classics that haven’t travelled overseas and for the past two years I have been enjoying a lot of American picture books that were, to me, obscure: Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal and his quieter epic One Morning in Maine; Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day; Munro Leaf’s brilliant and touching Robert Francis Weatherbee. Then last week, my kids received a gift from our doctor’s office of two of Dr Seuss’s most famous titles, Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat.

Have you tried to read these books? Aloud? I’m not a puritan about poetry, but the rhyme scheme – the way in which the author repeats a word to make a line scan – so, instead of “cold wet day,” he writes “cold, cold wet day” – is like something a kid would throw at a homework assignment so he could finish and run out to play. It is verbose without being funny, nonsensical without being inventive. And while repetition in children’s books is often part of their appeal, in Green Eggs and Ham two-thirds of the words feel like filler.

Dr Seuss is so lauded that preschools around here have Dr Seuss dress-up days and mark his birthday (2 March) every year. They should think again. Nonsense either works on the basis of its lyricism, like The Owl and the Pussycat, or surrealist energy, like Spike Milligan, but Seuss is neither of these things. His books are creepy, empty, over-long, cheap, twee writing posing as whimsy.

Bagel meltdown

There was a blizzard in New York this week. Everyone stayed home from work and school, and no one’s babysitter could come, so by mid-morning there was a sense of pent-up energy in the city that felt like a carelessly lit match would send the whole thing sky high.

In spite of the snow, we bundled up and went out. The only business open in our neighbourhood was Pic-A-Bagel and after struggling along for three blocks we went in. There are moments when you see yourself through others’ eyes and they are never particularly pleasant. Perhaps it was the shock of going from freezing, driving snow to a balmy atmosphere that smelled of chicken soup and tuna salad, but the second everyone’s snow suits were off, both my children dissolved into body-squirming, roof-raising meltdowns. I clocked two women catch each other’s eye and there it was, the moment I saw what they saw – a woman on the brink of temporary insanity, publicly wrestling a toddler.

A natural white lie

We spent the rest of the day watching TV, so that by evening I felt guilty and tried to find something that was at least vaguely elevating. And I did: waiting for me on Netflix, 10 hours of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. The opening lines, or as it feels to me after all these years, the opening bars – “Winter in Antarctica …” – almost reduced me to tears.

It all got a bit graphic during the kill scenes, but we recently read a picture book called Bear Despair, in which a bear ate other animals as punishment for stealing his teddy bear, and as I explained to my children, this was all that was happening here; the naughty hyena was eating the impala.

I didn’t add that, unlike in the book, the impala would not be burped up later to hop off scot-free. A lesson for another day.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes