Mr. Brown Can

There’s a book by Dr. Seuss called Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? that I’ve become familiar with of late due to having charge of a toddler.

Now one must see this book as a challenge, directly involving the reader, due to the eponymous question. Yes, of course, we can moo, and now we’re already game for the adventure in onomatopoeia awaiting us.

What I find unusual is the narrator of this tale, because that speaker is awfully impressed by the sounds Mr. Brown is able to produce. Unlike many Seussian characters, Mr. Brown appears to be human (or, at least, humanoid) and his mouth appears to have the correct shape and features able to produce the vocalizations that humans typically ascribe to animal noises and other common sounds. He can “moo” and “baa” with the best of them, and the narrator makes it clear that this is something to be applauded and celebrated.

Is it?

It feels a little strange to praise the man for making sounds that most toddlers can make. Is there a special way he forms these sounds? Are they truer than other human approximations of animal speech? We are given no indication that anything along those lines is true. All we know is that he makes wondrous noises and we ought to praise him for it.

There is something of the “participation trophy” to all of this. Why praise things that aren’t special, we ask. If everyone can do it, is it special? Now aside from mentioning that, in truth, not everyone can make these noises, we have to admit that making them feels a little less than special.

To the toddler, though, making these sounds is special. The first time these sounds are made, they are new and unique for both child and parent. They are perfection and worth a thousand trophies.

So, why didn’t Dr. Seuss make the protagonist of the tale into a child? Or maybe an especially gifted animal? Why is this fully-grown man (evidenced by his mustache and the balding hairs beneath his top hat) a child’s guide into the world of onomatopoeia?

In other words, why use the less special to praise the special? Doesn’t that simply dilute the uniqueness of a child learning to speak and understand human language?

But Mr. Brown must be special, too. Mr. Brown recognizes that these noises are too important to be dismissed or forgotten by the adult world. Mr. Brown puts value into singing out these glorious burbles and scales and crescendos that interpret the worlds beyond us and put them into contexts that even children can appreciate. Mr. Brown is our guide, and our children’s guide, into not just making the sounds that “everyone else” can make, but he intends us to value those sounds. They are not merely children’s entertainment, but a way of keeping ones toes on the ground even when childhood is a distant memory.

Mr. Brown moos because if he doesn’t, we won’t either.