How a graduation gift turned into a cliche

The Washington Post
Published: 5/31/2019 10:10:25 PM

We have read it on a boat.

We have read it with a goat.

We have read it here and there.

We have read it everywhere.

All over the country, hard-working students are walking across a stage, accepting a diploma and receiving a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Possibly, two or three copies.

Since Theodor Seuss Geisel published it in 1990, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has attained a unique position in American culture. No other book enjoys such iconic status as a go-to gift. Every May, it soars back up the bestseller list — still in hardback almost 30 years since it first appeared. It’s a title as firmly associated with graduation as pumpkins are with Halloween or turkeys with Thanksgiving. In terms of revenue, it’s “the winning-est winner of all” in the Dr. Seuss canon, with sales growing every year. In 2018, it moved a mountain of 800,000 copies.

How the Seuss stole graduation is a tale that sheds light on our own aspirations. The extraordinary success of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! stems from the book’s infinitely flexible appropriateness. Like the knitted thneed in The Lorax, it’s a “Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!” Children leaving kindergarten respond to Dr. Seuss’ colorful drawings and silly rhymes. For teens graduating from high school, the book is a sweet reminder of their waning adolescence. College graduates accept it as a cute token of nostalgia. And all allegedly resonate to the book’s rousing invocation of adventures just over the horizon.

But when the book first appeared, its success was not 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed. As Brian Jay Jones points out in his new biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss, some of the first reviews were harsh. Alison Lurie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a scholar of children’s literature, panned it as “the yuppie dream — or nightmare — of 1990 in cartoon form.” By this time, Geisel had already published dozens of books; the market could have felt saturated with Seuss.

Instead, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! turned out to be a singular publication that appeared just a year before he died. “I don’t think he had any idea how huge that book was going to be,” Jones says. But Geisel’s editors at Random House knew it was something special. “Former editor Michael Frith remembered reading through the pages and felt a catch in his throat. ‘Do you know what this is? It’s his valedictory. He’s saying goodbye to us.’ ”

The story, for anyone who hasn’t read it in the last 45 minutes, is about a little white boy heading off with great promise in any direction he chooses. The narrator assures him, “Out there things can happen / and frequently do” — especially, I suppose, to someone traveling in yellow pajamas without luggage, but that’s beside the point. “Just go right along,” the narrator advises. “Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”

No wonder hundreds of thousands of new graduates unwrap this book every year. As Lurie and other critics have noted, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a full-throated affirmation of individual supremacy in a competitive market. The children of Lake Wobegon may all be above average, but that’s for saps. “Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best,” Seuss says. “Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”

This is the American myth of self-determination spun in lamb’s wool — the perfect book for an Ayn Rand-themed baby shower. Its sweet promise of complete autonomy is a bouncing repudiation of the claim that it takes a village. Forget the village! Indeed, for this little hero, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other people. Seuss illustrates that in the story’s darkest — and only fully populated — moment: The Waiting Place. It’s a purgatory of suspended animation, a kind of cosmic Department of Motor Vehicles, crowded with glassy-eyed folks staring off, “waiting for the fish to bite / or waiting for the wind to fly a kite.”

Not our graduate! He doesn’t wait — he moves out alone, “All Alone!” It’s a point emphasized several times: “You’re on your own.” If anything, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is an affirmation of solitude as an existential fact and an opportunity. “Whether you like it or not,” Seuss says, “Alone will be something / you’ll be quite a lot.”

What fantasy could be more appealing to debt-laden graduates moving back home with their parents? Oh, the Places You’ll Go! may not tell us much about the way the world works, but it tells us a lot about how a certain set of Americans wish it worked.

Seth Lerer, the author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, From Aesop to Harry Potter, notes that the rise of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as a graduation gift coincides with the lengthening of adolescence for college-age people.

“They are much closer to their parents,” Lerer says. “Many of my students still have a very childish aspect about them. I mean, kids come to school with stuffed animals. When I was in college, if you came to school with a stuffed animal ... really?”

That change is reflected in their graduation gifts, too. In the 1970s, Lerer recalls, new graduates commonly received a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and a fancy pen-and-pencil set. “The belief was that when you graduated, when you had a period of transition, you needed to be ready to read and write, that the transition was a transition of literacy,” Lerer says. “What Dr. Seuss hit in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and the reason it’s been adopted is because many people now think that the transition is not about reading and writing, it’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about going places. That speaks to a lot of what many people would like to believe about the world now: Armed with your iPhone and Dr. Seuss, you can conquer the world.”

Which, of course, is a fantasy, but that’s often what beloved books give voice to in paradoxical ways. For the first generation in U.S. history to do worse than their parents, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is just right: It celebrates young adults’ dreams of escaping from home in the warm embrace of a children’s book they associate with home. It’s playtime self-reliance in pastoral tones — simultaneously intrepid and infantile.

Rachel Cass, the book buyer at Harvard Book Store, displays the book every year around Harvard’s commencement and usually sells about 150 copies, the store’s biggest graduation seller. One local hotel places a large order and gives them away.

Is there something odd about graduates from the nation’s most prestigious university receiving a picture book that contains fewer than 1,000 words? Cass is reluctant to pass judgment, but admits, “I’m not even sure people who buy it necessarily remember exactly what’s in it or have read it. Honestly, it feels a little cliche.”

And that cliche is piling up, creating a storage problem. Kiera Parrott, the reviews director for Library Journal and School Library Journal, used to work in libraries where she frequently saw donated copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

“The saddest thing is when I would go through some of the books and open them up, and there would be this loving letter written on the title page of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!: ‘My dearest granddaughter, Susie, may you treasure this book for always’ — writing this really sweet thing that now has ended up on the library sale pile, and I felt so terrible like, ‘Oh no, Grandma can never find out!’ ”

Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy revisited the whole canon of children’s literature to write his book, Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. He came away decidedly unimpressed by Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. “It feels canned and not lazy, exactly, but easy,” he says, “both in its thinking and in some of its rhymes.” He prefers the “underlying strangeness and melancholy” of Emily Winfield Martin’s The Wonderful Things You Will Be, which he acknowledges bears a debt to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! And for older students, he would select something much tougher: Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac. “I imagine that book would have plenty to teach graduates heading off to any profession in any century,” he says.

I rarely read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to my own children, although we were huge fans of Seuss’ more whimsical books. We adored the subversive Cat in the Hat and the weird illogic of Hop on Pop. But the didacticism of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was a turnoff. For all its nattering on about life’s boundless possibilities, it’s a book that tells you exactly where to go. And it wasn’t a place that resonated with us.

My elder daughter was born with severe brain damage, which meant that she needed 24-hour care. We maintained a very happy home, but we knew in our bones just how much we needed each other, our extended family and the vast network of teachers and aides. The idea of prancing off alone “in the wide open air” didn’t feel like an aspiration; it felt like a betrayal.

Our situation may have been extreme, but its ethos certainly wasn’t unique. For people who understand the benefits of community, the importance of learning to live together and the emptiness of being as “famous as famous can be, / with the whole world watching you win on TV,” Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is nonsense — and not the good kind.

It’s hard to retire a cherished children’s book. And maybe we don’t really have to give it up. But surely we can stop buying duplicate copies. And better yet, rather than reaching for a picture book that’s become the literary equivalent of a worn greeting card, why not spend a moment selecting a book that might actually get read and convey some fresh, relevant inspiration?

For anyone who can read something more complex than a chapter book, maybe it’s time for Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to go. As Dr. Seuss himself said:

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

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