Dr. Seuss’ Most Memorable Book Characters – And Ones You Might Want to Forget
Dr. Seuss gifted the world more than 60 children’s books, and countless characters, from the Grinch to The Lorax. However, some may be better off forgotten.
With more than 60 books published under his pen name, Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel was one of the most prolific and influential children’s authors of the 20th century.
Whimsical but never saccharine, Seuss’ works stirred the imaginations of beginning readers, and forever changed the American education system.
Along the way, he introduced dozens upon dozens of memorable Seuss characters — and, in fairness, few that are perhaps better forgotten.
Who Was Dr. Seuss?
Best known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel was an American author, illustrator, poet and political cartoonist. He dropped out of the University of Oxford in 1927 to begin his work as a cartoonist and illustrator. Ten years later, he published his first children’s book as Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
That was followed more than 60 Seuss books, several of which were released after his death in 1991. Among them are such classics as Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which not only became essential reading for generations of children, but also source material for beloved movies, TV specials and series.
Dr. Seuss’ works aren’t without problems, however. Theodor Geisel’s early, World War II-era political cartoons have come under scrutiny in recent years for their racial stereotypes and xenophobic rhetoric. Those offensive caricatures seeped into some of the early Seuss books.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises finally addressed the problematic imagery in 2021, when it ceased publication and licensing of six books: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.
The Most Memorable Dr. Seuss Characters
Some of Dr. Seuss’ best characters have leaped off the page to become ingrained in popular culture. Figures like the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch and Horton the Elephant are in a league of their own, but there are other, less-famous characters that deserve spots just below those undisputed greats.
The Cat in the Hat
The eponymous Cat of the 1957 children’s book, The Cat in the Hat is easily the most famous Dr. Seuss character. Wearing a red-and-white striped top hat and red bow tie, he’s an agent of chaos who suddenly appears on a “cold, cold, wet day” to entertain bored Sally and her unnamed brother. (The book’s narrator is dubbed Conrad in the 2003 live-action film.)
Adults no doubt side with the children’s cantankerous pet fish, who, for some reason, opposes the stranger barging into the house with promises of “good fun.” His objections prove justified when the Cat unleashes twins Thing One and Thing Two, who wreck the house by flying kites inside. However, the Cat declares, “I always pick up all my playthings,” and cleans up the mess before leaving, just before the children’s mother returns home.
Created partly in response to criticism that conventional school primers, like Dick and Jane, were boring and actually impeded children’s learning, The Cat and the Hat became Dr. Seuss’ true breakout hit, and changed the nature of children’s books.
“The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority,” he recalled in 1983, “but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.”
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
A giant among Dr. Seuss’ legion of amusing characters, the Grinch’s influence extends far beyond Whoville, to the English language itself. (Grinch, meaning a killjoy or spoilsport, entered the lexicon in 1966, the year The Grinch Who Stole Christmas animated special premiered.)
The Grinch is, of course, the miserable green creature who despises Christmas and the chipper Whos that celebrate the holidays with their endless singing. Determined to stop Christmas, he dresses as Santa and sets out with his adorable dog, Max, to steal the Whos’ presents, decorations and food. However, he soon realizes Christmas “doesn’t come from a store,” which causes his small heart to grow three sizes.
The Grinch may have been closest to Dr. Seuss’ own heart, as the author drew inspiration for the character from himself. “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinchish countenance in the mirror. It was Seuss!” he recalled in a 1957 interview with Redbook. “Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”
Dr. Seuss’ fable about the perils of environmental destruction is, sadly, just as timely today as it was when The Lorax was published in 1971. The diminutive, mustachioed Lorax isn’t the most likeable of Seuss characters, but he’s undoubtedly the most important. Think of him as the Cassandra of Seussville, futilely warning defiant industrialist Once-ler of the dangers of deforestation and pollution.
The Lorax is narrated by the faceless Once-ler, who learns his lesson far too late. When the last Truffula tree falls, he’s left without the raw materials needed to make Thneeds. As his factory shuts down and the Once-ler’s family abandons him, The Lorax lifts himself up “by the seat of his pants,” and floats up through the smog, never to be seen again. Where The Lorax last stood remains a stone slab etched with the word “Unless.”
The story ends on a hopeful note, with the Once-ler suddenly realizing the meaning of the message. He tells the boy who came to hear the legend of The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The Once-ler then gives the boy the last Truffula seed, and encourages him to grow, and protect, a new forest.
Horton the Elephant
No Seuss character is sweeter than Horton the Elephant, the naive star of the 1940 book Horton Hatches the Egg and its 1954 follow-up Horton Hears a Who! Selfless and remarkably fearless, Horton is also simple-minded, which leads him to persist long after anyone else might have given up.
In Horton Hatches the Egg, he’s tricked by a lazy and irresponsible bird into sitting on her egg while she takes “a rest.” That break quickly morphs into a Palm Beach vacation, leaving poor Horton to endure inclement weather, changing seasons and even abduction to America to play a role in a traveling circus.
All along, he clings to the nest, and to his famous mantra, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!” He’s finally rewarded for that faithfulness when the egg hatches to reveal an elephant-bird.
The elephant’s perseverance wins out again in Horton Hears a Who!, in which he discovers a speck of dust that’s revealed to be a tiny planet that contains Whoville. Horton vows to protect the Whos from harm, which pits him against the story’s symbols of social conformity, Sour Kangaroo and the Wickersham Brothers. Horton’s repeated insistence that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” was subsequently been embraced by a variety of sociopolitical movements.
Little Cindy Lou Who
One of only three named characters in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Cindy Lou Who plays a brief, but memorable, role in the 1957 children’s book. As the Grinch launches his scheme to stop the arrival of Christmas in relentlessly cheery Whoville, he’s discovered while pillaging one Who house of, well, everything. (“Why, that Grinch even took their last can of Who-hash!,”) As the Grinch stuffs the family’s Christmas tree up the chimney, he’s interrupted by “a small sound like the coo of a dove.”
The wide-eyed Cindy Lou is traumatized by the sight of Santa Claus looting her home. “Santy Claus, why,” she pleads. “Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?” To his credit, the Grinch quickly devises a lie convincing enough to satisfy a 2-year-old: One of the lights doesn’t work, so he’s taking the entire tree back to his workshop.
Cindy Lou Who’s role grows, much like the Grinch’s heart, in animated and live-action adaptations of Seuss’ book, to the point that she’s pivotal to the expanded story.
Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose
Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose isn’t on the same level as the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat or Horton in terms of fame. However, Thidwick’s patience, and the book’s unusual theme about the limits of hospitality, make them stand out among Seuss stories.
In the 1948 book, a Bingle Bug asks Thidwick if it can hitch a ride on his antlers. The amiable moose agrees, only for the insect to take advantage of his kindness. The bug promptly sets up permanent residence, and invites along a succession of forest creatures, including a woodpecker, a family of squirrels, fleas and, ultimately, a bear.
Constrained by proper etiquette, Thidwick says nothing. He even risks starvation when his “guests” object to him rejoining the herd to migrate to greener pastures. When Thidwick is pursued by hunters, he’s saved only by shedding his antlers, and with them, his guests.
In the end, Thidwick is happily reunited with his herd. Meanwhile, his antlers become a hunting trophy, and his “guests” are stuffed and mounted, “as they should be.” That’s a harsh punishment for being inconsiderate, but Seuss is nothing if not consistent.
The King’s Stilts is likely nobody’s favorite Dr. Seuss book, but that doesn’t mean its title character isn’t memorable. Published in 1939, the story is written in prose rather than in the verse for which Seuss is best known. However, this Seussian twist on a traditional fairy tale delivers a message every bit as timeless as Horton Hears a Who or The Lorax.
King Birtram is tirelessly devoted to Binn, a low-lying kingdom protected from water only by a ring of Dike Trees. However, those Dike Trees are the favorite food of birds called nizzards, and so the king maintains thousands of Patrol Cats to fend off the creatures. When Birtram isn’t tending to his royal duties, he loves nothing more than to romp through the streets of Binn on his red stilts. “When he worked, he really worked,” goes the book, “but when he played, he really PLAYED!”
But when the king’s stilts are stolen, Birtram grows despondent, and neglects his duties. That begins a chain of events that imperils Binn, at least until the king’s stilts are returned. If the themes of The King’s Stilts (duty and the importance of finding a work-life balance) don’t still resonate today, then few things probably will.
Dr. Seuss Characters That Haven’t Aged Well
Not every Dr. Seuss book has stood the test of time, like The Cat in the Hat, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! or even Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book. Some, including his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo, were removed from the Dr. Seuss Enterprises catalog in 2021 because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
However, there are characters in Seuss works that are problematic for reasons that have nothing to do with racist imagery. Perhaps they’re merely products of their time, but some Seuss characters carry baggage that doesn’t travel well into the present day.
One of the most recognizable Seuss characters, Sam-I-Am famously, and relentlessly, attempts to convince his friend to try a new dish in Green Eggs and Ham. The 1960 classic is Dr. Seuss’ simplest book, written using only 50 words, including the often-quoted, “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”
However, while the book’s lesson is about open-mindedness — effectively, “don’t knock it until you try it” — Sam-I-Am has been criticized as a bully. A re-reading of Green Eggs and Ham certainly supports that. Sure, Sam’s unnamed friend (called Guy-I-Am in Netflix’s 2019 adaptation) is a bit of a grump who declares, unprompted, “I do not like that Sam-I-Am!” Nevertheless, he’s polite enough in his initial refusal of green eggs and ham. That should have been the end of the matter, except Sam refuses to take no for an answer. And so begins Sam-I-Am’s dogged pursuit, by car, train and boat, in order to browbeat Guy-I-Am into tasting this new dish.
A book intended to teach beginning readers about the importance of trying new things now feels like an ode to peer pressure. Guy ultimately relents, and discovers he actually likes green eggs and ham. But at what cost?
If I Ran the Zoo is among the six books removed in 2021 from the Dr. Suess Enterprises catalog because of racist depictions. Indeed, it’s difficult to look at the offensive caricatures of Asian, Middle Eastern and African people, shown as an imaginative kid daydreams about traveling the globe.
However, young Gerald McGrew’s dream is also problematic in its own right. Unimpressed with the rather ordinary animals, like lions and tigers, at the zoo, the boy imagines setting them free, and then finding more extraordinary creatures to replace them. In his vision, Gerald sets out to far-flung locales to hunt down and capture the fluffy Bustards, the Joats and the Lunks, among others, and bring them back to the McGrew Zoo.
It’s a fanciful, yet extremely dated, image of a zoo that’s far removed from modern conservation parks. And because of the racist imagery in If I Ran the Zoo, Gerald McGrew becomes the “great white hunter” instead of merely an imaginative boy.
Yertle the Turtle
The Grinch is an unabashed jerk who comes to see the error of his ways. But Yertle, the possibly self-proclaimed king of the pond, is a jerk who learns absolutely nothing.
The title character of the 1958 collection Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, this king looks at his happy subjects in their “nice little pond,” and concludes he needs something more. Determined to see beyond the pond, and potentially expand his kingdom, Yertle orders the turtles to stack themselves beneath him. His subjects do as their king commands, allowing him to see a mule, a cow and a house, all of which Yertle believes are his. When the turtles express their discomfort, the king silences them, and demands more of his subjects pitch in, to raise him even higher.
When a furious Yertle declares his desire to rise higher than the moon, it’s clear the turtle king has reached “pride comes before a fall” territory. The bottom turtle burps, and brings the entire stack down. With that, Yertle’s reign comes to an end, as the former king of the turtles is declared king of the mud.
Yooks and Zooks
The Butter Battle Book further underscores that Dr. Seuss never shied away from serious sociopolitical issues, even one as grim as nuclear war. Published in 1984, during the Cold War, the the arms-race parable is hardly Seuss’ most subtle work.
The story centers on the Yooks and the Zooks, who live on opposite sides of a great wall. They’re embroiled in a conflict simply because the Yooks eat their bread butter side up, while the Zooks eat their butter side down. When a Zook patrolman slingshots a Yook, it kicks off a rapidly escalating arms race that brings with it the threat of mutually assured destruction.
The Butter Battle Book is heavy-handed and grim, despite whimsical weapons named “Kick-A-Poo Kid” and “Poo-A-Doo powder,” surpassing even The Lorax. Its final, blank page is downright chilling, suggesting the Yooks and the Zooks destroyed each other. The book was challenged in at least one library in Canada, because it “condones war.” That’s absolutely the wrong takeaway, of course. However, The Butter Battle Book continued to inflame some conservative critics, decades after its release.