Updating Dr. Seuss for a 21st Century Kid

Great Birthday Bird
Dr. Seuss’s “Great Birthday Bird” from Happy Birthday to You! has delighted girls and boys for over half a century. Earlier this week, Seuss’s festive feathered friend visited my daughter on her birthday for the first time. She’s four-years-old.

I downloaded the ebook version of this classic children’s book a few months ago, just after Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays mentioned it in a comment to my post about the dissenting opinion in Yates v. United States, in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan cited Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

Jeannes Comment

Happy Birthday to You! is as charming and entertaining as anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss’s other books would expect. Also, like other Seussian classics, its 60+ pages of tongue twisters are somewhat challenging for those who don’t practice reading it aloud ahead of time.

My daughter enjoyed the book, even when I tripped up on the rhymes and pro-nun-see-eye-ations (as Dr. Seuss would say).*  😉

My daughter also shared Jeanne’s appreciation for the sentiment that, when finding a pet as a birthday present, “the best pet is the tallest of all-est.” At the 98th percentile for height, my [not-so-] little girl seems to be taking after her 6’5” dad instead of her 5’2” mom.

Now I’m wondering whether I can make the book even better for my children. As much as I love the dated classic feel of this Dr. Seuss book, I’m going to slightly tweak the text when we read it next time.

The original text reads:

“The Great Birthday Bird!
And, so far as I know,
Katroo is the only place Birthday Birds grow.

[…]

And, whether your name is Pete, Polly, or Paul,
When your birthday comes round, he’s in charge of it all.

Whether your name is Nate, Nelly, or Ned,
He knows your address, and he heads for your bed.”

At least three of those names — Polly, Nelly, and Ned — are far less common today than they were in 1959, the year Dr. Seuss published Happy Birthday to You! For example, the name “Ned” dropped from its place as the 310th most popular name in the United States in 1900 to #530 in 1959 to “not in the top 1000 names” by 2000.

Most of the substitute names I’m planning to use are likely far less common in the United States than “Ned” is today, but they better reflect my daughter’s diverse community than the six names of European origin in the original text.

The next time I read this story, I will say:

“And, whether your name is [Ai, Aiden, or Amal],
When your birthday comes round, he’s in charge of it all.

Whether your name is [Zack, Zayla, or Zay-ed],
He knows your address, and he heads for your bed.”

I think my little Z will love seeing her name and mine included in the story. I have alliterative replacements that include my twins’ names ready to go too.

I also considered adding a hometown touch to the story by changing “Zummer” to “Mummer,” referencing a beloved Philadelphia tradition in which men and (a few) women dress up in elaborate costumes and parade through the city streets on New Year’s Day.

The new text would’ve been:

“First, we’re greeted by Drummers who drum as they come.
And next come the Strummers who strum as they come.
And the Drummers who drum and strummers who strum
Are followed by [Mummers] who come as they [mum].
Just look at those [Mummers]! They’re sort of like Plumbers.”

Drummers who drumWhat I like about the substitution of “Mummer” for Dr. Seuss’s “Zummer” is not only that my daughters would recognize the word, but also that real-life Mummers actually have a historical connection to the building trades, including plumbing. In 1994, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“The bawdy Happy Tappers[‘]… theme was ‘Mummers Plumbers.’ Their float consisted of a very large toilet bowl and a gang of plumbers dressed in yellow satin shirts and green silky coveralls. Others wore bright orange and blue.”

However, I probably won’t mention the Mummers the next time we read Happy Birthday to You! The Mummers are loved by many Philadelphians who look forward to their performances year after year, but I find it hard to forget that they are a racially homogenous and gender imbalanced group (especially when there has been a Minstrel-style performance in recent years).**

So, referencing this Philadelphia tradition may detract from my goal of updating Dr. Seuss’s book to include diversity and better reflect my daughter’s world. The types of controversies that surround the Mummers are sadly part of that world, but they shouldn’t be, and books can reflect a better reality than the one we actually live in.

Here is a picture of my four-year-old (and here she was last year on her special day). She had a great birthday!

Zayla is four

*In Happy Birthday to You!, the Great Birthday Bird is trained by the “Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation.”

**You can see a video of the parade here and, in the comments, some defenses to the blackface-inspired performance.

 

22 thoughts on “Updating Dr. Seuss for a 21st Century Kid

  1. Pingback: What Pet Should I Get? (1960 Versus Now) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

    1. I love sharing books from my childhood with my own children. I read lots of Dr. Seuss books when I was a kid (and many were read to me), but I don’t remember this one specifically.

  2. Literary Feline

    Happy Belated Birthday to your daughter. 🙂 I have never read Happy Birthday to You book. Reading it every year on your child’s birthday like Jeanne does sounds like a great idea. I’m afraid my daughter didn’t inherit the tall gene like your daughter. She’ll be short like me. 🙂

    I love your idea of updating the text of the book to make it more diverse and accessible to your children. I’ve inserted my daughter’s name in songs I sing to her, replacing the original names. She loves it when I do that. 🙂

  3. Happy Birthday to your daughter!

    My little girl loves Dr. Seuss but I know we still have so many more of his books to discover. Maybe I will pick this up for her birthday in May!

    1. Thank you! She had a wonderful birthday. I can’t believe she’s already four (she tells people she’s five, though!).

      It’s a fun birthday book. I highly recommend reading it to your daughter (and fitting her name into it, if that’s something that interests you).

    1. The Mummers are definitely a major Philly tradition despite being so controversial in some circles. They also seem to be struggling in recent years (I haven’t been following the stories on it closely, though).

  4. I never read Dr. Seuss when I was a child. Can you imagine? I didn’t hear about him until I’d grown up and moved out of the house. My mother gave me Grimm’s fairy tales instead, and on vacations, I was allowed to buy any book I wanted when we stopped at gift shops. But there was no Dr. Seuss.

  5. SF

    I sometimes stick my kids names into books to make it more personal. Love the idea of making it reflect diversity too. Seuss was writing in a different world from the ones we live in these day, huh? Still love his books.

  6. Happy belated Birthday to your daughter. And how funny, I bought the e-book as well after reading Jeanne’s comment on your post. Kid #3, who got to hear it first on his special day, loved it. Kid #2’s birthday is just around the corner, so we’ll read it again then. I probably won’t remember to change those names, though. 🙂

    1. Happy Birthday (in advance) to your second little one! I read the story in its original form on my daughter’s birthday, but I’ll use the replacement names next time. I think my girls will like hearing their names in the story.

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