Time To Ax the 'Lorax'?

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The whimsical creatures who inhabit the world of Dr. Seuss may seem like the least likely of literary characters to spark a debate over reading curriculum.

But that's just what's happened in the small California logging town of Laytonville, where one Seuss book, The Lorax, has raised the hackles of parents who fear it paints a negative image of the local timber industry.

The book, written by Theodor Geisel under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, recounts the tale of a woodland creature who singlehandedly wages a futile fight against the rapacious, ax-wielding "Once-lers," who determinedly harvest the native Truffla trees into near-extinction to make multipurpose garments called Thneeds.

The story ends with the last remaining Once-ler admonishing the reader to nurture the sole surviving Truffla seed and to "protect it from axes that hack."

Because most Laytonville residents earn their living from the harvest of timber, many parents were upset to learn that the book, published in 1971 and a regular on the district's reading lists for the past decade, had become required reading for 2nd-graders.

Judith Bailey, a Laytonville native who, with her husband Bill, runs a wholesale supply business for the logging industry, says she decided to challenge that decision when her son expressed the belief that "if you cut a tree, you kill an animal."

"My concern was simply that the children who were taught this book last year came away with a real negative feeling," she recalls.

Ms. Bailey subsequently set a precedent in the 570-student district when she asked district officials to remove The Lorax from the 2nd-grade reading list.

"I don't object to the book," she says, adding that the book might be more appropriately taught to older students. "I just thought that the teachers should reconsider the level at which it's being taught."

However, a special committee appointed by Brian L. Buckley, superintendent of the Laytonville Unified School District, voted 6 to 1 last month to keep the book on the required list; the school board must still approve that decision.

Meanwhile, word of the dispute--which those involved said reflects the tensions between the mostly native loggers of Laytonville and its newer residents--has expanded almost as rapidly as the Once-ler's Thneed industry. Newspapers from Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to write about the controversy, but national media attention soon followed.

And the controversy has breathed new life into the book's sales. Locals now report they have to drive 100 miles or more to buy copies of The Lorax.

"It is obviously striking a resonant chord among the population," Mr. Buckley says. "When Dr. Seuss comes under attack, it raises eyebrows."--P.W.

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