The Politics of Yertl the Turtle

Your Majesty please…I don’t like to complain,/ But down here below, we are feeling great pain./ I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,/ But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”


Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That quote is lines 65-68 from “Yertl the Turtel”, one of three stories from Yertl the Turtle and Other Stories by the rabble-rousing labor activist and raving anarchist, Theodor Suess Geisel, better known to you, me, and millions of other children as Dr. Seuss.  The famous children’s book was published by Random House Books on April 12, 1958, and Dr. Seuss’s demonic, socialistic thoughts, have been polluting minds – young and old – ever since.

But, like all instigators of class warfare, the good Dr. got called to account for his dangerous words a little over a year ago by Dave Stignant, acting director of the Prince Rupert School District in the sleepy little hamlet of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada.

But, let’s start this from the beginning.  The photo of the turtle that heads this bit of pinko thinking was taken by my wife.  The turtle is at home in a pool outside of Auto-Mercado, an American-style supermarket between Tamarindo and Villareal in Costa Rica.

I commented at what a limited world-view this poor creature must have had, and a friend of mine replied that it probably wasn’t all that bad, since the turtle was king of all he surveyed.  I immediately thought of one of the first books I owned as a child, Yerlt the Turtle and Other Stories.

It’s a short piece -probably one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous – from this stanza:

Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
 I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it.  Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food.  We are starving!” groaned Mack.


Similar turtles were used in an editorial cart...

Similar turtles were used in an editorial cartoon published in PM on March 20, 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gist of this story is that Yertl the Turtle is the King of the Pond on a “faraway island of Sala-ma-Sond, and wanting to be more powerful, he had ordered his turtle subjects to pile up so he could survey more to be King of.  Mack, a most common and plain little turtle, was on the bottom.  All was fine until the moon came up, and Yertl called for more turtles since there should be no higher than the highest authority…himself.

How this all became an issue in the Prince Rupert School system was that a elementary school teacher had introduced this book into her class plan.  She also seems to have had a t-shirt with “But down at the bottom, we too should have rights” on the chest.  She was a union member, and there was a bit of re-working to be done as far as contracts and pay-scales were concerned.  The indignant Stignant banned her from using the book in her classroom, wearing the t-shirt, and from even having any items concerning Yertl the Turtle on school grounds, or in open view inside her car.

“It’s a good use of my time if it serves the purpose of shielding the children from political messaging,” the indignant Stignant said.  “I don’t consider it’s taking a stand on the dispute.  It’s a matter of legality and living up to our obligations to children and their families.”



I was digging farther into this, the results of the Yertl the Turtle controversy and book ban, and especially the fortunes, or misfortunes of the indignant Stignant…but the internet connection went south, I lost my original post, art, and settings, so I’m getting this off as fast as I can before it happens again.

Save it for another day.

I do know that the end of the tale has plain little turtle Mack burp (which was quite a rude thing to say in 1958) and the turtle tower collapsed, leaving King Yertl face in the mud of the pond.  Maybe the final stanza gives some indication of how the whole union brouhaha, as well as the indignant Stignant’s, fortunes fared:

And tosay the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud.  That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
 As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

26 thoughts on “The Politics of Yertl the Turtle

  1. monosolo says:

    Do you know Gertrude McFuzz? She was a girlfriend of mine when I was young, then this guy who called himself a doctor promised her fame and a starring role in a book. No more girlfriend. I need to learn to write.

  2. shimmyshark says:

    Reblogged this on shimmy-shark and commented:
    Forgot all about International Turtle Day. My last minute tribute to all the turtles in the world, which should have rights too.
    On my Way…

  3. jalal michael sabbagh. says:

    Nice post.jalal

    • coyotero2112 says:

      Thanks. An odd man, to put all that social conscience into books seemingly aimed at children, but probably meant to affect the parents of those children as well.

  4. Don says:

    Both my sons, who are now in their early thirties, grew up on Dr Seuss, and this particular story had a profound effect on them. They’ve never forgotten it, and just experiencing them now, I know that there concept of power was profoundly shaped by this little story. For me the story also lingers. Wonderful post – thank you.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      Seems all his work was very subtly subversive and critical of everything from social issues to science and vanity out of control. I’m fascinated now. Thanks for the comment…probably not the last of the good Dr. and my interest in his work.

  5. ioniamartin says:

    I had that song stuck in my head from the video for like two years because my kids were obsessed with it. Good message though. I will always be loyal to cat in the hat.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      Ch3m R3nt boy brought up “Simon and the Oobleck” which is about science run amock. Now I’m really turned on to Dr. Seuss…this guy was way ahead of his time, and so low-key about his social commentary. Cat in the Hat must be subversive, somehow…checking.

  6. mrs fringe says:

    What a world. I think my head is going to explode. Watch out for the turtle eggs shooting from my ears, they’re endangered.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      I’ve seen baby turtles de-shell on the Carribean side…there are hundreds. I’m sure there’s plenty more that will come from those elfin ears of yours.

      • mrs fringe says:

        Oh, what a sight! I’ve always wanted to see that, so wonderful.

        And now I’m carefully rearranging my hair to cover the points of my ears 😉

        • coyotero2112 says:

          Of all things…we’re walking down a beach at sunset, only tourists in town…and all the drug dealers are lined up on the beach. A leatherback turtle’s eggs had hatched and hundreds of fifty cent piece sized turtles were flailing to the sea. Biologists who study turtles wait for months to film that, and we saw it by accident…no camera !
          I think pixiie ears would look good with your new doo.

  7. dbubble12 says:

    Banned or not; there is something very important to learn from beginning to end of this book! All the turtles are free… Way to commit to Yertl!

    • coyotero2112 says:

      I just re-read it before I wrote this, and it is so political in a way that the powerful would feel uncomfortable with. That sealed the deal…had to do this piece.
      Thanks for the comment.

  8. And burping “Sic semper tyrannis!” proletariat Mack brought the Mad King down. It was a story that always made me nervous as a child, what with the nature of turtle shells and all. But the story that freaked me out was Bartholomew and the Oobleck, where magic (standing in for the evils of science) is the bane of mankind. A story about nuclear armageddon for those too young to know what nuclear armageddon is.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      An odd duck, for sure. Kurt Vonnegut, in Fates Worse than Death wrote that Geisel went to Cornell, where Vonnegut studies chemistry, and drew a whole wall of murals of strange creatures that would later show up in his books. How weird is that? Dr. Seuss’s original ideas for his most outrageous animals on the wall of a frat house basement.

  9. Great relevant and timeless book. However, I never heard of this one. As a child, I loved Dr Seuss, I could recite ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ with the best of them — (however, I’m sure I was more dramatic than most.) You know something speaks the ‘truth’ when they ban it. Love it! PEACE-

    • coyotero2112 says:

      Thanks. This was always one of my faves. My favorite bookstore in Seattle had/has a banned book month, and I was not surprised that more than half their selections were on my shelf or kindle…now, another one.

  10. shimmyshark says:

    Too funny. You’ll stop at nothing.
    On my Way…

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