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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

How the Grinch stole my heart

Guest Post By Ron Charles

Washington Post Book Critic

A selection from Dr. Seuss's “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (Dr. Seuss Enterprises)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Like this week’s Daddying blog guest, the Washington Post's Ron Charles, I too have relished the bountiful delights of reading oodles of "Dr. Seussiana" aloud to my children and to many other children in my various roles as an educator. And like Ron Charles, when my first daughter was born after some oxygen deprivation to her brain, one idyllic version of her future faded as other possible futures started to form darkly in the dusk of birth hopes [to paraphrase Ron].

 

As is the case with so many of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel’s wonderful critters from his 48 books, the Grinch begins as a cynical grump. One who would feel comfortable, perhaps, in our current warring world, with evil and cruelty encroaching on our lives far too much as the winter solstice arrives.

 

When How the Grinch Stole Christmas! begins, it is hypothesized that his negativity may be due to a heart that is two sizes too small and, as with many of Seuss’ other “villains,” his heart has grown three sizes after he learns that “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store…perhaps (it) means a little bit more.”

 

Geisel described his satirical social commentary as “logical insanity.” I imagine he would describe the current state of our world, on the threshold of way too many manmade disasters, as just plain “insanity.” That said, with characteristic optimism, he’d likely still believe that:


You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

– from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, 1990

 

As we approach the end of another calendar year, as the longest night yields to increasing daylight, may we have a rebirth of sanity as we realize “we are the world.” Merry Grinchmas, everyone! – Allan Shedlin


The following guest post by Ron Charles was originally published in the Washington Post, December 13, 2023. We are sharing an excerpted version of it here on the Daddying blog with his permission:



Although I hold both figures in high regard, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve read How the Grinch Stole Christmas! many more times than I’ve read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Nothing against the Nativity story. With errant kings, angelic fireworks and a dynamite backstory, it’s got terrific elements, but — God forgive me — Dr. Seuss has got rhythm and rhyme.


Those are saving graces in my family.


My first daughter, Elissa, was born severely oxygen deprived. In those early moments after her arrival, one idyllic version of our future evaporated, and other possible futures started to form darkly in the dusk of our hopes. I realize, of course, that many parents must radically adjust their expectations. The picture that comes with the frame is not the image of anyone’s real family. But my wife and I felt particularly lost. The early diagnosis — cerebral palsy — was severe, devastating and terrifyingly vague.


As other moms and dads cooed about their babies rolling over and waving bye-bye, we tried not to pay any attention to the typical developmental milestones. My wife and I struggled to maintain what order — and humor — we could manage.


Because books were so important to us, we read them aloud without knowing if the joys of language would ever be part of Elissa’s life. For a while, frankly, it all felt like an exercise in false hope, but we developed a great fondness for hope of any species. We patted the bunny and fed a very hungry caterpillar and asked the brown bear what it saw. The earnest tones of our reading were peaceful. And a bit dull.


But then, sometimes — look! there! — we started to catch signs of delight flashing across Elissa’s face when we were reading children’s books of a certain sort: stories that rhyme, lines that bounce, words that spark with onomatopoeia. Soon, it was obvious: Elissa adored hearing books of verse. My wife and I became Jack Prelutsky partisans and Shel Silverstein aficionados.

Little Cindy-Lou Who joins the Who-ville Whos in holiday song

But our most enduring love was for the zany sounds of Dr. Seuss. As he would say: “It started in low. Then it started to grow.”


In those early dad days, every step I took around the house seemed to fall into the rhythm of The Foot Book. I moo’d with Mr. Brown. (Can you?) My wife and I learned that it was possible to carry on entire conversations in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse, here or there and everywhere. If it rained, we sat there, we two, and I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”


We always found Thing One and Thing Two.


But the Dr. Seuss story that burst into our home with particular vigor and has refused to leave was the book he published a few months after The Cat in the Hat.


How the Grinch Stole Christmas! first appeared in the pages of Redbook magazine in late 1957. A bound version quickly followed. I knew the story well, not only from the book my parents read to me but from the TV adaptation that became a holiday favorite in 1966 and gave the world the first green version of the Grinch.


But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that I began reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas! enthusiastically all year round to a little girl who adored it. The Grinch not only stole Christmas, he stole my daughter’s heart. I make no claims to competing with the sonorous voice of Boris Karloff, but I developed a way of hooting on every Who down in Who-ville that this toddler thought was particularly hilarious.


Of course, the book’s appeal stems from more than just a few funny sounds. What makes the language of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! so delectable is the wild modulation of its tone — the way the Grinch undulates from disgruntlement to rage to devilish delight and beyond. His emotions are as naked and volcanic as a child’s.


And like the best children’s books, Dr. Seuss’s work lures readers into the forbidden realm of wickedness. When the Grinch is caught stealing a Christmas tree by Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was not more than 2, we experience an essential thrill of literature: the chance to be both — both the little girl so easily fooled and the furry unctuous liar who has no shame.


That swirling solution of innocence and villainy is the elixir that keeps How the Grinch Stole Christmas! eternally young...


In Brian Jay Jones’s biography Becoming Dr. Seuss, Geisel is quoted saying, “I wrote the story … to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

That makes How the Grinch Stole Christmas! sound like a tale about returning to the origins of the holiday. But that’s more the theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is punctuated by Linus reciting verses from the Book of Luke. Geisel was after something more secular and ultimately more complex. According to Jones, he considered “thousands” of endings but rejected them all as too preachy and religious.


We’ve come to think of the Grinch as a character who hated Christmas, but at the start of the book everything he hates about the holiday is, in fact, extraneous to its essential meaning. He hates the greedy obsession with presents, he hates the wildly elaborate meals, and he especially hates the saccharine music. “Oh, the noise!” he shudders. “Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”


If the Grinch had remained fixated on the true meaning of Christmas, when he got 3,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Crumpit, he’d have dumped all those toys — along with the ribbons and wrappings — and then come down from the peak of his moral superiority to remind the Whos how to properly observe the holiday.


But this is not a story about conversion or ideological purity. It’s a story about learning to live with, even to appreciate and revel in, the traditions of others. In a world so divided by adamantine convictions about who’s right, who’s worthy, and how we should behave, the Grinch’s great revelation — his heart-expanding compromise — is a model for everyone in Whoville and beyond.


Thirty years ago, I was just a desperate dad looking for a silly rhyming book to read to my daughter. Now I see what a rich present it really is.


Try the roast beast. It’s delicious.




 

Ron Charles writes about books and publishing for The Washington Post. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest. Before moving to the District, he edited the books section of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. His wife is an English teacher and the cinematographer of their satirical series, “The Totally Hip Video Book Review." He is the recipient of the Louis Shores Award for reviewing from the American Library Association; First Place in Arts & Entertainment Commentary from the Society for Features Journalism; and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from National Book Critics Circle. He earned his M.A. in English from Washington University.

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