By fifteen and sixteen, most high-schoolers only remember Dr. Seuss for his hat-wearing cat and persistent Sam I Am. Most high school teachers probably imagine the same titles when someone suggests that they use “picture books” in the classroom. Even though picture books have been shown to be an effective way to build background knowledge, many secondary teachers are reluctant to introduce Kid Lit into their serious, standards-driven lessons. The thing is, there’s more to Dr. Seuss than mischief and rhyme. His work has inspired some of the most powerful argumentative and analytical writing that I’ve seen from my sophomore U.S. History classes.Reexamining picture books, like Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book, allows upper-level students safe grounds for deeply exploring the social undertones found in political parables. Any teacher would agree that “tyrannical fascism” and “nuclear tension” are not most students’ favorite topics of study. Moreover, arguing the appropriate response to global threat is an incredibly heavy subject matter for tenth grade. However, after a short and amusing read-aloud, my students had a base of knowledge to build from towards understanding the complex politics of WWII and the Cold War.
The Butter Battle Book, which you—like me—may have passed over in childhood, tells a silly parable about the ominous nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Dr. Seuss’ obvious allegory depicts the world of the Yooks and the Zooks, where a ridiculous conflict over buttering bread could lead to the possible destruction of the world with each military trying to one-up the other in terms of superior weaponry.Introducing these somewhat classic picture books was a surprisingly easy transition for both my high school students and for me. From there, they grew eager for more contemporary young adult picture books, like Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. As publishers continue to strengthen this growing genre, secondary teachers will have more and more opportunities to blend picture books into their complex curricula.
Erica Beaton is a sophomore Humanities teacher in the Tech 21 Academy at Ceder Springs High School in Cedar Springs, MI. She is currently reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein.