If you like Dr. Seuss, you might like Chukovsky

September 27, 2007

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- While many of us in the United States were captivated by "The Cat in the Hat," many Russian-speaking children were busy reading "The Telephone."

"I thought it was the funniest children's story that I had ever read," Walter Kolonosky said of his initial reading of the children's classic by Kornei Chukovsky. "Not only does Chukovsky rhyme like Seuss -- that is, in anapest -- but he also introduces a good measure of word play."

Kolonosky is a professor of Russian at Kansas State University's department of modern languages. He said the animal imagery and frequent frivolity are just a few things these two beloved children's authors have in common. Such similarities have prompted him to read Chukovsky and Seuss in a new light.

"We love Seuss; they love Chukovsky," Kolonosky said, "apparently for the same reasons."

Chukovsky's "The Telephone" is about animals that, one after another, call a doctor to ask for such seemingly ridiculous items as a pair of galoshes. Although Seuss was an illustrator and Chukovsky was not, Kolonosky said both authors' stories portray animals with telling human characteristics. Although animals like the bear, the rabbit and the fox often come to the surface in Russian folklore, Kolonosky said that Chukovsky chooses to add crocodiles, cockroaches and other insects to his cast of creatures.

"Who would think that a cockroach would be a fitting topic for a children's story," Kolonosky said.

That cockroach may be more than just a cockroach. Kolonosky said that both Chukovsky and Seuss wrote in metaphors. The mustachioed insect in Chukovsky's "The Big Bad Cockroach" was an allusion to Joseph Stalin. But Seuss is also filled with allusions. Seuss, like Chukovsky, is issue-driven, Kolonosky said. Seuss, for example, focuses on the plight of the environment in "The Lorax" and the disenfranchised in "Horton Hears a Who."

"They manage to smuggle in a good bit of ideology into their stories, but never in a heavy-handed way," Kolonosky said.

Some, but not many, English translations of Chukovsky's stories are available in the United States. Chukovsky himself was a noted translator, having introduced, for example, the works of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to Russians. Naturally, Kolonosky said, readers of both Russian and English can better enjoy the marvelous poetry of Chukovsky and Seuss, not to mention their other correspondences.

Chukovsky introduced Dr. Seuss to Russian speakers, calling him the best children's storyteller in the world. Kolonosky said that Seuss also admired Chukovsky and that the two were united in not just in telling stories to children, but also in understanding what and how children learn to read.

"There's a real common ground here," Kolonosky said. "Chukovsky and Seuss were in complete agreement about what should go into the writing of literature for children. And neither one tried to be pedantic."

Books like Chukovsky's "Dr. Ouch," a Dr. Doolittle-like tale, and Seuss' "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" share the very simplicity, playfulness and mischief that, in the opinion of these authors, appeal to children, Kolonosky said.

"Both Chukovsky and Seuss were iconoclasts," Kolonosky said. "One broke with the tradition that brought us fun with Dick and Jane; the other with the tradition that brought us the exemplary lives of Vanya and Vera."

Kansas State University

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