In 1990, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, published what would be his last book before his death a year later: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
It’s hard to imagine that Dr. Seuss intended the story of a nomadic child in a yellow onesie to become the staple gift of high school, college, and even grad school graduations. But 30 years after its publication, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ top-selling book, routinely landing on bestseller lists come May and June as parents and grandparents dole out cheerful, albeit vague, advice that their loved one is “off to Great Places” and they’ll “move mountains.”
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has grown into 19 editions and spin-off titles including activity and baby versions. The franchise sells more than 800,000 copies per year, with sales between 2018 and 2019 increasing 15%. Even without the push of film and TV adaptations like The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat, and Green Eggs and Ham, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has been a cornerstone title of Dr. Seuss Enterprises in the most organic and unexpected way.
“I can’t even tell you when it actually began,” says Susan Brandt, president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. “It was like a groundswell of people realizing this message of life’s journey and the ups and the downs and believing in yourself just works for this time of year.”
Even, Brandt hopes, in the middle of a pandemic.
Going into this graduation season, Dr. Seuss Enterprises rolled out a campaign to account for COVID-19’s impact on mass gatherings. With graduations going virtual, the company enlisted celebrities to read from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, wrestler and actor John Cena, and astronaut Scott Kelly, and more. The campaign also featured a push on LinkedIn with business leaders and career experts breaking down parts of the Oh, the Places You’ll Go! into actionable and optimistic advice for graduates entering a workforce where unemployment rates are plummeting to Great Depression-era numbers.
“This isn’t a book just for children. This is a book for all of us,” Brandt says. “It’s a book about our journey in life. Whether we’re graduating from kindergarten or we’re looking for our next job or we’re navigating COVID. The genius of [Dr. Seuss] is he speaks to so many of us in so many of our life situations.”
Now those life situations also include global protests for racial justice—on top of that pandemic.
After the initial reporting for this article, the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police set off Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Racial tension in America is as fraught as ever, as city officials brutally clamp down on peaceful protests and the Trump administration continues to spew divisive rhetoric.
Between the persistent threat of COVID-19 and this current wave of protests raging on, the boundless optimism of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! can ring hollow.
In the best of times, the book has gotten flak as a graduation gift, with critics railing against its saccharine lessons as any kind of useful roadmap for young adults. It is, after all, a children’s book that was never meant to ameliorate the health and economic crisis caused by a pandemic nor was it designed to unpack the complexities of systemic racism.
But over the years, Dr. Seuss Enterprises has doubled down on Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as the perennial graduation gift. The book’s brand has shifted from its origin as a wondrous adventure for kids to a perennial pep talk to young adults on how to navigate life’s most difficult challenges.
I went back to Brandt to ask if that position still holds, in the midst of a 2020 graduation season unlike no other in the history of the book.
“In challenging times like these, stories that deliver hopeful messages, like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! are more important than ever,” Brandt says. “We understand that no story will provide the magic answer. However if a reader can pull something out of a story that they can identify with, and that helps them deal with what they are feeling, then the story can help them see a path forward. That is always our hope with Oh, the Places You’ll Go!“