Dr. Seuss’ legendary The Lorax has sold 200 million copies. But did you know that a year before it entered the public consciousness, a book was published with a near-identical premise, an even sharper visual flair, and a perhaps even more poignant narrative? And that even now, over 5 decades later, the book in question has a microscopic fraction of the awareness that Dr. Seuss’ legendary environmental parable has accrued over the last 50 years?
I didn’t know it either and was floored to discover this pre-Lorax marvel, one of the best and most profound children’s books I’ve ever read. (Although it’s not truly a children’s book. In fact, the world would be better off it it had been required reading for every teenager and every adult in the last half-century.)
The masterpiece in question is The Wump World, written by brilliant storyteller and illustrator Bill Peet. It was published in 1970, one year before The Lorax came out in the summer of 1971.
Peet had worked as a Disney animator for nearly 3 decades, until he clashed with Walt Disney during the early stages of production on The Jungle Book. His biggest and most impressive claim to Disney fame, for which he received relatively little credit (that I’m aware of), was both screenwriting and storyboarding the original 101 Dalmatians. It was — get this! — the first time a Disney film had ever been written by one person alone. Storyboarding was also a task that was usually given to a team of animators, but Peet did the job all by himself. Both accomplishments were unprecedented when the film was released in 1961.
So that classic Disney movie, which has now spawned multiple TV series and several live-action remakes — along with a dark upcoming prequel about Cruella de Vil that would likely make a quarter of a billion dollars if it could viably open in theaters — was the product not of Walt Disney, but of the one and only Bill Peet.
I’ll say it again, a bit louder, so the people in the cheap seats can hear me: BILL PEET IS THE REASON THAT THE MOVIE VERSION OF 101 DALMATIANS EXISTS. It’s far too late to properly credit him (Peet died in 2002), but his memory deserves to be honored.
When his career drew to a close, Peet had written and illustrated 35 books, the large majority of which are truly stunning in their visual design, their timeless truths, and their vividly crafted stories.
So what was the deeply Loraxian narrative contained within Peet’s marvelous and sadly overshadowed The Wump World? See if this storyline sounds familiar (either from The Lorax or from life itself).
A pastoral, idyllic world is calmly inhabited by the herbivorous Wumps, a peaceful species that resemble capybaras. But a race of humanoid creatures called Pollutians come uninvited to the Wumps’ world, to escape their own destroyed planet.
They proceed to destroy the Wumps’ world with their callous, consumption-driven lifestyle, causing the precipitous decay of their environment. The Wumps retreat underground in fear and shock, to protect themselves from the giant earth-moving machines these invaders are using to replace nature with skyscrapers.
Once the Pollutians have largely ruined yet another planet — which these entitled creatures consider to be theirs to use, and use up — they become disgruntled by their own dirty air and once again depart to find a new home. Once they’re gone, the Wumps emerge from underground caves to find their planet disfigured and devastated by smog-encrusted wreckage. In the final passage of the book, Peet merges faint hope and lingering sadness when he writes:
“In time the murky skies would clear up and the rains would wash the scum from the rivers and lakes. The tall buildings would come tumbling down and the freeways would crumble away. And in time the green growth would wind its way up through the rubble. But the Wump World would never quite be the same.“
Most of these plot points are virtually identical to that of Dr. Seuss’ rightly beloved The Lorax. A case can be made that the writing itself is even more resonant, given the dark subject matter. Peet is masterful with prose, distinctive and evocative. He can conjure the aching sadness of unchecked industrialization and the destruction of nature better than anyone. (For reference, see two of his other masterpieces, Merle the High Flying Squirrel and Farewell to Shady Glade, both of which were seminal works of literature for me as I grew up.)
That understandably doesn’t sound like the stuff of kids’ books, but somehow Bill Peet sensitively and beautifully pulls it off. Just ask my 4-year-old, who has enjoyed these books since he was in his early 3s, even well before he could understand the gravity (or even the concept) of water being polluted, or nature being pillaged.
Make no mistake: The Lorax is one of the greatest parables ever written by Dr. Seuss. It fully deserves its place in the pantheon of children’s books (along with the environmental pantheon). It’s a brilliant piece of literature, full stop.
But the capybara-esque Wumps, who again were conceived by Bill Peet a year prior, deserve to be seated right next to the walrus-esque Lorax in those pantheons. Both were hand-drawn by ’70s-era prophets who predicted, with chilling clarity, the environmental degradation we have seen play out over the last half-century. The tragic way that we have prioritized lucrative profits over lucid prophets.
One of those prophetic men has deservedly gotten his due, and then some. But the other man has only a tiny fraction of Dr. Seuss’ name recognition. This humble blog post is my attempt to undo that inequity.
So thank you, Bill Peet. Thank you for the Wumps and for every other creature you vividly brought to life with colored pencils. May your legacy grow. May your memory never be lost. May we all, 50 years later, heed your careful (and gorgeously drawn) warnings.
And may we never merely consign your books to the children’s section.
If you see this epilogue, then thank you so much for reading this whole blog post! I am deeply grateful for your time and your interest. I always enjoy getting feedback on Facebook, so feel free to like, add a comment, or share my post if you feel so compelled. (I haven’t yet figured out how to properly maximize this site, so Facebook is the preferred place for traction and interaction.
Again, thank you. So much.