Oh, the Place You’ll Go! is a classic children’s book that deals with the weighty topics of free will and death, but Dr. Seuss addresses them so delicately and with the kind of honesty and clarity that encourages and prepares the child for the overwhelming tasks that await.
“You,” the pronoun, is written as a second person singular but intended as a second person plural. Meaning, “you” refers to both the protagonist, the unnamed little hero who’s adventures we will soon be following, and the reader. Dr. Seuss is writing in second person so that hero and reader conflate. They become one in the same person.
For the duration of this story, every little boy or little girl reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! will travel with the hero, become the hero, and understand, subconsciously, symbolically, the existential journey we all must partake.
“You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
The human condition is about making choices. Some people are paralyzed by this, they spend all day confused, gnawing at their fingers, unable to decide anything. As if from a surfeit of options they wait, choosing none, and suffer in “The Waiting Place.” But others, other like the hero, are braver than that. Others choose what their life will be, but, and this but is crucial, but only to a certain extent. Dr. Seuss acknowledges and tells the child that there are elements, things, that are out of the child’s control.
“And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.”
The illustrations are trippy and weird, but to a child the entire world seems trippy and weird. The child does not have the tools to interpret all the signs he encounters everyday. Initially, the child’s only relation to the world is in the house. At this time, the house is the world.
The house is the first space a human being encounters. It is a representation, a trope of outside existence. Before a baby can understand itself as a thoughtful, rational, mortal being, before it can understand that it is a separate entity from its surroundings, it knows only the house and the people which inhabit it.
But, there soon comes a time when the child has to leave the house, and this is where Oh, the Places You’ll Go! comes in.
“Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”
This is the first time this mantra appears. The second instance is without italics, because, presumably, the child has gotten over the shock of failing at something.
Dr. Seuss does not shy away from sad or the scary, instead he understands them and tries to prepare the child for the inevitable hard and lonely times. Perpetually glossing over serious subjects can be detrimental to the child’s development, can make the fall, the “Lurch” from being left behind, even tougher to cope with.
“All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot. And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.”
The picture above these words is dark and looks more like an Edward Gorey illustration. The inky hatch-marks, the brittle arbor, the dead trees, the yellow grass, the evil creatures with green eyes that are shaped like tomb stones, and the text itself all are signifiers of death. And though the child does not read death, and does not necessarily even think of death (because perhaps they have no idea what death is or means), the above drawings leave the child with the feeling of death. This illustration impresses upon the child the seriousness, the gravity of making decisions and the text suggests the extreme desire to return to the safety and warmth of the home. Thus, another existential dilemma.
Of course, the narrative ends on a much happier note (apologies if I gave anything away), but does so in such a way that respects the child, something not all children’s authors care about.
Now, if only all of life’s lessons came in such succinct rhymes.
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