Philip Nel > Courses > English 680: 20th Century American Children's Picturebooks (Fall 2005) > Sample Abstract
Philip Nel > Courses > English 690: Children's Literature and the Left (Spring 2004) > Sample Abstract
Philip Nel > Courses > English 830: Image, Text, Ideology (Fall 2003) > Sample Abstract

"Children's Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Munro Leaf,
and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46)"
Philip Nel
Kansas State University

        During the Second World War, Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), P. D. Eastman, and Munro Leaf worked with Warner Brothers' studios -- animators Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, composer Carl Stalling, and vocal impressionist Mel Blanc -- to create propaganda films for the U.S. Military. Teaching by negative example, the title character lived up to his name, an acronym for (as the first cartoon put it) "Situation Normal All ... All Fouled Up." Sometimes aided by his brothers TARFU ("Things Are Really Fouled Up") and FUBAR ("Fouled Up Beyond All Recovery"), SNAFU fails to maintain his weapon, spreads rumors, and lets slip confidential information. My paper will investigate how their experience writing propaganda shaped the postwar children's books of Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, and Munro Leaf.

        For Seuss, who once said that he "had no great causes or interest in social issues until [opposing] Hitler," the SNAFU cartoons provided an opportunity to develop narrative versions of the ideas expressed in his single-panel PM cartoons (1941-43). In the animated SNAFU cartoons, you can see Seuss experimenting with the storytelling strategies he would deploy in his post-war message books, such as The Sneetches (1961), intended as a critique of anti-Semitism; Yertle the Turtle (1958), a parable based on the rise of Hitler; and The Lorax (1971), his pro-ecology fable. Munro Leaf -- whose The Story of Ferdinand (1936) was at the center of a political controversy before the war -- wrote a series of Can Be Fun books that both educate and implicitly reflect upon the role of education in shaping postwar America. As Leaf writes in Reading Can Be Fun (1953), "The reading that you do [...] will help to make you the kind of person you want to be when you're grown up." P.D. Eastman subtly addresses the ideological uses of education in Sam and the Firefly (1958) and, perhaps inspired by his work on SNAFU, points to the right course of action by showing us the wrong one. Having been taught to read and write by Sam the owl, Gus the firefly then misuses his knowledge, rewriting signs that disrupt traffic and business. While neither Leaf nor Eastman favor the overtly political style of Dr. Seuss, all three authors offer lessons in the exercise of power in a democratic society.

        However, the SNAFU cartoons' racist caricatures and the children's books latent (and overt) sexism indicate that these three authors were not fully aware of the power structures in which they were enmeshed. Examining flaws in these works' liberatory strategies, my paper will also explore the ways in which even progressive propaganda can oppress. Whether promoting prejudices that they sought to counter or offering a genuinely emancipatory practice, Private SNAFU and his literary descendants show us what happens when children's literature goes to war and then seeks to promote a lasting peace.

The full version of this article was published in the Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (June 2007): 468-87.


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