It’s the early nineties and depending on the year I’m five or six or seven. Sesame Street, Teddy Ruxpin, Ninja Turtles and the Raccoons are the coolest things on the air, or at least on the two channels beamed to us from a glorified set of metal prongs called an aerial (for those who bypassed the experience), set in the branches of a tree beside our house. At night those two channels become the territory of my parents, and before long I’m sent up to bed.
Which is when I’d want a story. And very often the story I wanted was The Lorax.
I don’t remember when my father first read The Lorax to me, and maybe it was only to me in the beginning, and then to my brother and I, and soon to both of us plus our little sister. Who knows how many times we heard it over the years? All I can be sure about is that I loved it every time, even though the plight of the Lorax made me sad. I seem to remember crying sometimes at the end when he lifts himself by the seat of his pants and flies away through a hole in the smog.
It wouldn’t surprise me if I learned the meaning of the word “unless” from the earliest of these story nights, curled up on the bed, gaze bouncing over the text at the speed of my father’s voice. And perhaps that was Seuss’s very intention. That one word, which the Lorax leaves etched on a pile of stones, is at the center of the Once-ler’s famous final warning: UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
Dad always did voices for each of the characters. The Once-ler spoke through him one moment, the gruff and wise Lorax the next. In that way dad became both of them, and that in itself, I think, is part of the magic of storytelling, or more specifically, the relationship between the storyteller and the listener.
There’s a scene in Neil Gaimen’s American Gods in which a Paleolithic tribes people take turns wearing the skull of a mammoth and a cloak made from its hide. Once wearing it, a man or woman speaks through the skull and their words become the words of the tribe’s god. In essence, they become the god through this act, a great mammoth-headed being, and pass on advice to the rest. Is this so different from listening to a well-read story as a child? Young imaginations will easily accept the fantastic and fill in the gaps of reality left between, eager for stimulation and adventure. When I listened to The Lorax I became a part of the story, the part of the young boy who wants to know the Once-ler’s secrets, and through my father the characters came to life and spoke to me, passing on Seuss’s message.
The Lorax stuck with me. When I moved to Japan a decade and a half or so later, I packed it in my bag. By then the book, a richly colored hardcover, was deteriorating with all the times my siblings or I had gone back to read it over the years. The spine had mostly peeled off and the pages were held together with little more than the original film of glue still clinging to them. At some point one of us had caught and squished a fly by snapping the pages closed over it like a venus fly trap, and there was a spot of dried flecks left behind at the murder scene to remind me.
Why had I chosen to bring it? I guess it was because I considered it a piece of home that I could take with me. More than that, a piece of family. I could hold it in my hands anytime and be taken back to those nights of hearing it read aloud, to a place and time that in some way helped shape me. The book itself is just a vessel, words and illustrations on paper, but the experiences I attach to it are irreplaceable, and less subject to deterioration. They’ll last as long as I do.
Skip ahead to years later. I now live in South Korea. In late December of 2012 I opened a Christmas package sent from my mother and father back home. Inside was a DVD of the new animated Lorax movie. I had heard of it somewhere, but I hadn’t even known it’d come out. There was a sticky note on the case, written by my mom: couldn’t resist getting this for you!
I popped it into my laptop and watched. As would be expected the movie was a Hollywood-fried, song-filled, rumble and tumble adventure, with boatloads of stuff that were never in the book. But beyond all the, ahem, artistic liberties taken with the source material, and I’m talking about an unending parade of them, the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), the Truffula trees, the Once-ler and his Thneeds were all there, along with the story of environmental destruction run amok in the name of unchecked greed.
One major diversion from the original story is that at the end of the movie (spoiler alert) the Lorax comes back, along with the forest, the animals and clear blue skies, for a happy reunion with the Once-ler. In the book none of this happens and nothing in the future is for certain: it all lies with the decision and resolve of the child, and by extension any child reading the story. The movie takes that responsibility out of the viewer’s hands, the happy ending provided for them already. I’m saddened to think that there are plenty of children out there who may never read the book, content with the movie alone, or of parents who will now never read it to them, satisfied instead to put the DVD in the player for the umpteenth time and leave their kids sitting in front of it.
My girlfriend came over just as I was finishing the movie, and asked, seeing the end credits, what I had just watched. She didn’t know what I was talking about when I told her: she’s Korean and had never heard of Dr. Seuss or The Lorax at all. I suggested we watch it together, and so we did, right then and there. She loved the imaginative world it presented and enjoyed it a lot. I explained that it was based on an old book, one that I used to cherish, and then it came to me: for someone studying English, as she is, what a great thing to read (not to mention potentially confusing, with such gems as miff-muffered moof, snergelly and rippulous, to name a few). In fact, wasn’t it possible that I’d learned the word “unless” from The Lorax all those years ago? I recommended it to her and she ordered it the next day. The book that arrived in the mail was soft cover, and the colors didn’t seem as vibrant as my old copy, now stowed away again on a shelf in Nova Scotia, but there it was, waiting to be read.
It occurs to me that in this way I’ve grown up to pass The Lorax on, not to a member of the next generation, but to someone who would probably never have had the joy of reading it otherwise. Who can say where it will go from there? I can’t, but I know that it got this far because someone once took the time to read it to me, speaking for the tragic characters of this fun and sad and ultimately hopeful tale, the same way that the Lorax speaks for the trees. I’m convinced that for a parent to read to their child is one of the greatest gifts they can give them. It’s a form of love, as sure as any other, and just like the story itself, it keeps getting passed on, throughout life after life.
Days after watching the movie I Skyped with my parents to thank them for the Christmas gifts. Pretty soon talk turned to Lorax.
“Do you remember when you were little?” asked my dad. “You loved the book. You were always asking me to read it to you.”
Yes, dad, I really do.