Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dr. Seuss Panic Attack: Jibboo, Be Not Proud...

Once upon a time, when I was but an impressionable little child, I was innocently flipping through a Dr. Seuss book when I came face-to-face with death.

Don't believe me?

Remember this question?

"And what would you do if you met a JIBBOO?"

This enigmatic, vaguely racist-sounding query comes from the book Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! and it is accompanied by one of the most terrifying pictures it has ever been my misfortune to encounter in a children's book.

I won't post it here.  Yes, I still find it that unsettling.  Google it if you want to give yourself nightmares for a week.

No mere description will ever capture the utter creepiness of this image, but I'll try: Imagine a street running through an abandoned town.  This street is lined with the empty, decaying shells of ghostly white houses, and a pale sliver of moon glints weakly down from the night sky.  At the far end of the road stands the dark silhouette of a young boy, frozen with fear.

He is frozen with fear because of the thing that awaits him at the other end of the street.

The Jibboo--gaunt, stark-black, beaked like a vulture*--has him in its sights.  It advances on the boy, this boy who is the in-story avatar for the child-reader, with its long neck thrust eagerly forward.  It raises a long spidery arm in ghastly greeting.  There is nowhere for the boy to hide himself from its cold embrace; he is as naked and exposed in this blasted landscape as the single sickly dying plant that struggles out of the otherwise bare dirt road.

What makes this scene especially frightening is its radical shift in tone from the rest of the book. The "story" is actually a series of imagination-inspired vignettes, and all of the previous flights of fancy involved things like floating swimming pools and cute purple elephants.  The only other remotely scary things in these pages are the grumpy walruses glowering at Peter the Postman as he delivers mail to the igloo village, and even they look more like your curmudgeonly old neighbor than a genuine threat.

Then, with the flip of a page, you're staring directly into a gut-wrenching existential crisis.

And then, just to crank up the jarring factor to eleven, the narrative promptly returns to cotton-candy-sweet thoughts of pretty white horses galloping through candy cane forests.  I guess because Dr. Seuss understood that if you stare into the horror of your own mortality long enough, it stares into you.

*Incidentally, when I read The Last Battle--the final entry in the Narnia series--I realized how very much the evil god Tash looks like a de-Seussified version of the Jibboo and got traumatized all over again.  Screw you, C.S. Lewis.


  1. It's difficult to say if Mr. Jibboo is a metaphor. Seuss did do metaphoric imagery with his political cartoons and I've noticed some of it echoes in his children books (political deception in Green Eggs And Ham, for example). The Jibboo is a conception of 'what would you do when faced with uncertainty?'. It's dark, maybe Jibbo is the cousin to the Vipper of Vipp. They look similar, and she's rich on her throne over looking the sea and fancy clothes. Her cousin jibboo might not have been so fortunate and he's got a reputation for being a vagabond always bumming for change. Or maybe he's exactly what we fear he might be. It's uncertain. That unsettled me more now as an adult than it did when I was a kid because I've more experience with uncertain turning into something unfavorable than before.

    I like the way you pointed out the change of theme with that page, because it is different. And the page before that has an eeriness to it too. "Would you dare yank a tooth of the RINK-RINKER-FINK?". It's not "think about this- think about that", it becomes consequential suggestive questions of uncertain outcomes. I think Seuss wanted to high light how when a mind wanders without supervision, it can go to dark places.

    In "Oh The Places You'll Go", it did that too. You'll be a high flyer and race ahead the others, but then get hung up in a lurch; you'll be famous and great on TV, and then be at times all alone and afraid (insert images of dark Seuss monsters leering over little garden walls with narrowed green and yellow eyes). Seuss was an existentialistic-realist for sure.

  2. Perhaps the Jibboo is simply a misunderstood creature, ostracized by bird society (ever notice how many birds there are in this book?) for his strange appearance, leaving him only able to come out at night. Notice his pose appears to be a friendly greeting. Seuss poses the question, what would you do if you met a Jibboo? Would you assume he was evil? Or would you give him a chance? Or maybe he really is a boogeyman, possibly summoned by yanking the tooth of the Rink-Rinker-Fink, which appears to be a statue in his image. One interesting side note, the Jibboo cameoed in the special “Halloween is Grinch Night” as one of the Grinch’s spooks, where he assumed a much more menacing stance.