Reading & Literacy

‘The Lorax’ Is a Constant in Classrooms. Does It Send the Right Message?

Experts debate whether the beloved Dr. Seuss book empowers students
By Madeline Will — April 21, 2023 5 min read
Librarians Tori Gredvig holds the banned book the Lorax on Oct. 4, 2012, in the media center of Lakewood Montessori Middle School, during banned book week. Because it portrays the logging industry in an arguably negative way, some people felt that this book was persuading children to be against logging.
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Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is a beloved children’s book frequently taught in schools around Earth Day. But is it the best way to teach about today’s changing climate?

Children’s literature scholars say that the book, written in 1971 by Theodor Seuss Geisel, still holds some value for students today, as part of a varied diet of environmental and climate literature in the classroom. But while books like The Lorax can open the door to conversations about climate change and sustainability, several experts say the message of the Dr. Seuss story could actually be less empowering for students than some teachers might think.

“As cute as it is, it’s so abstract,” said Sarah Collins, a 4th grade science teacher at Patricia A. Duran School in Hermon, Maine, who has a background in English/language arts. “If we want to use it as a starting point, that’s fine, but I think there are so many better choices now that represent the world our students live in.”

In The Lorax, a child walks through a barren, polluted town to visit a reclusive man named the Once-ler and pays him to tell the story of the past. The Once-ler tells the child how a long time ago, he came across a beautiful utopia with bright “truffula” trees and cheerful animals. He cut down a tree to make a “thneed,” an ambiguous piece of fabric, which he quickly realized people would buy in droves.

Despite the repeated warnings from a creature called the Lorax, who spoke on behalf of the trees, the Once-ler and his family members chopped down every single truffula tree in the valley, until smog filled the air, and all the fish and animals were displaced. All that was left was a big empty factory—and a message from the Lorax that said, “unless.”

The Once-ler tells the child, in a line that has become a famous rallying cry for social and environmental justice, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The book ends with the child receiving the very last truffula seed, in hopes that if he takes good care of a new forest and “protect[s] it from axes that hack,” in time, the Lorax and his friends will come back.

The story is so ubiquitous in K-12 schools that “it’s like the Bible,” said Marek Oziewicz, a professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Minnesota who also runs Climate Lit, a resource hub for teachers.

But The Lorax is more than half a century old, and “far more empowering” children’s books on environmentalism now exist, Oziewicz said: “We have moved so far from The Lorax.”

A beloved book that can feel ‘stressful’

In recent years, some of Dr. Seuss’ work has been denounced for including racist and xenophobic tropes. In 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six of the author’s books that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

But The Lorax has remained beloved for how it denounces environmental destruction. Many teachers dress up as the furry orange creature to teach the book, and the story was made into a movie in 2012. In fact, Dr. Seuss once said The Lorax was his favorite book that he wrote. “I wrote it as a piece of propaganda and disguised the fact,” he apparently told a reporter.

Over the years, the book has been censored for its societal critiques. For example, in the late 1980s, a school district in northern California banned the book over its negative portrayal of the logging industry.

Children’s literature experts say The Lorax is an engaging story that reminds readers that they can and should take action to protect the environment, which is vulnerable and under attack. The book also tackles concepts like capitalism and consumerism.

But they worry that the story doesn’t leave students feeling empowered and supported to take on today’s environmental challenges.

The Lorax’s message seems to be: “It’s you, the children, who must make the change, because we as adults will not,” said Nance Wilson, a professor of literacy education at the State University of New York Cortland. “That’s where The Lorax becomes problematic and a little stressful because wow, what a stressor to put on children—‘you are the ones who will fix the world.’ We need to remind students it’s a collaborative effort and work together.”

And given the consumerism portrayed throughout the book, the ending could suggest that once the boy plants more trees, the environmental destruction will continue, Oziewicz said. The Lorax offers no real, long-term solution, he said.

Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, which focuses on social and racial justice in education, said the idea that the Once-ler ultimately learned from his mistakes and became “the voice of ecological sanity” is misleading.

“It teaches kids that there is hope in appealing to those people who are the root of the climate crisis—that you can and should appeal to them,” he said. “I think that’s a problematic lesson about where change comes from.”

Instead, Bigelow said he thinks students should learn about grassroots activism against environmentally destructive practices and consider how they could be a part of that movement. “It’s activism that is the antidote to despair,” he said.

Many elementary teachers avoid discussing activism or climate change in the classroom, especially in states with restrictions on teaching so-called “divisive issues.” But experts say that children’s books—beyond The Lorax—that tackle climate change in age-appropriate ways can be a good starting point for these complex conversations.

“Stories can be used to empower young people to have the courage to ask these questions and to have the conversations,” Oziewicz said. “The bottom line is, the less you talk about it, the more scary it is.”

Teaching students agency

About 40 years ago, Bigelow taught a high school course called “literature and social change.” He asked his students to rewrite the story of The Lorax and show a different route to change. For example, one group of students wrote that the creatures of the forest who suffered most from the Once-ler’s destruction came together and pledged to find a solution by working together.

Bigelow said the exercise was a hit among students at the time, and he thinks it would be now, too. It would also be a great way for high schoolers to partner with elementary students—the teenagers could write a new story and then read it to younger children, he said.

And teachers should consider other children’s books on environmentalism, either to use in addition to or instead of The Lorax, experts say.

Collins, the Maine science teacher, pointed to books like Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Me and My Sit Spot by Lauren MacLean. Those books show the importance of valuing and protecting the environment in a concrete way that young children can appreciate, she said.

After all, the messages in children’s books matter.

“If you think about children’s literature, kids are hearing these books again and again and again,” Bigelow said. “Let’s give the kids a little credit: They’re absorbing particular messages from these books.”

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