Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel, has been a household word for nearly 70 years by creating a library of literature specifically designed to instruct, enlighten and entertain children and their parents through the use of imaginative imagery…
you can read about hoses... and how to smell roses. (I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)
... and carefully chosen prose.
and what you should do about owls on noses.(I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)
His imagination has not only sponsored numerous copiers but also encouraged otherwise reluctant subjects to further their encounters with literature. It is Geisel's own imagination that has fueled a machine that has sold over 200 million books, launched a publishing house and changed the rules concerning how children are taught to read.
I can read with my left eye; I can read with my right. I can read Mississippi with my eyes shut tight.(I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)
Originally a writer and cartoonist for advertisements, "quick, Henry, the flit", World War II Army films (Private Snafu, the soldier who could do nothing right ) and postwar polemics (among others, a war Department orientation film to be shown to occupying forces in Germany), Ted Geisel became a premier writer for children's literature reluctantly. Ted was always impulsive... he fell into his drawing career on impulse and he got into writing children's books accidentally. But like everything Ted did, it seemed to work. Since 1937, Dr. Seuss has added 45 prescriptions to his original formula. Nothing in the history of books for children comes within hailing distance of this phenomenon of humorous and instructive work. But, if the doctor offered only hilarity, critics would have little to say. There has to be something more than that.
Theodore Seuss Geisel was born March 2 1904 in Springfield Massachusetts. The town and his idyllic childhood would be defining influences on the artist the world would know as Dr. Seuss the names of his neighbors... Terwilliger, McElligott, Bicklebaum...would populate his books McElligott’s Pool. When he experienced something, it would stay with him forever. He remembered names; he remembered streets. Everything went into that memory bank: he never lost the ability to see things through the eyes of a child. Also, he spent a lot of time as a child with his sister in the local parks, especially the zoo, run by his father. They would spend hours there every Sunday, and his father gave him a set of drawing pencils and encouraged him to draw and Ted spent his time trying to draw the animals, but the results were not as expected. "I was trying to do real animals, but I put too many knuckles on them." ("Dr. Seuss") Likewise, his mother, who read to her children every night in German and English, influenced her son. More than anyone else, his mother was responsible for the rhythms in his work. His mother would recite to him a sing song version of the kinds of pies that were available that day. These two influences, along with Ted’s curiosity and imagination, would help to create the world of Dr. Seuss.
Then we saw him pick up all the things that were down. He picked up the cake, and the rake, and the gown, and the milk, and the strings, and the books, and the dish. And the fan, and the cup, and the ship, and the fish. And he put them away. Then he said, 'that is that' and then he was gone with the tip of his hat.(The Cat in the Hat)
Upon reading such joyful prose, one might think Geisel was a gregarious person. Actually, he really didn't enjoy being around a lot of people. He lived in his own private world. He was a loner by nature, a reflection of his German upbringing. His father was a very quiet man who once told his son "you will never regret what you didn't say" ("Dr. Seuss"), and Geisel kept that in mind. After World War I, anti-German sentiment affected young Ted, and he never forgot it. Geisel was very aware that "group think,” such as that against Germans, can be very painful and thoughtless. He was not a group person. He didn't belong to organizations. He was an independent thinker, and not suited to the regimented world he found at Dartmouth College. He was more drawn to the campus humor magazine where one can write pretty much anything he wants. He began to draw his outlandish figures and create nonsense verse for the magazine, with much success. An alcohol related infraction cost him the editor in chief of the school magazine, but he continued to publish, using pseudonyms including his mother's maiden name, his middle name, which in German was pronounced “Soice” to rhyme with “voice”, but Americans tended to mispronounce it as ”Soose” to rhyme with moose, and that is what stuck.
After graduation he found himself on a ship bound for England. It was his first trip out of the United States. He spent his whole life playing hooky from the world, according to his wife. He was headed for Oxford to become a professor of English literature, but during the lectures he spent most of his time doodling. Sitting behind him, admiring his artistic talent was a young lady, Helen Palmer. One day after class, she told him he’d be crazy to be a professor and that is the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. He dropped out of college and became an illustrator full time, working for humor magazines in New York. He later added "Dr." to "Seuss," telling people with a straight face, Dr. Seuss: "it was compensation for the doctorate I never got at Oxford." ("Dr. Seuss"). Within a year, one cartoon changed his life. He created an ad for an insect spray that became an icon of its era. It was a picture of a dragon confronting a knight, who said, "darn it all, another dragon. And just after I sprayed the entire castle with Flit" ("Dr. Seuss"). He was hired immediately and became their primary artist. His catchphrase "quick Henry, the flit" ("Dr. Seuss") became a household phrase. The parent company, Standard Oil, also had him use his creative energy to sell their other products. It is difficult for people today to understand how important Ted was in his own time. He was a hugely popular figure in the media before he really became popular as a children's book writer.
The Geisels traveled extensively, months at a time, collecting adventures and stories. It was on their way back from one of these trips in 1936 that he experienced yet another life-changing experience. Geisel came upon his first children’s rhyme while returning from Europe on the steamship Kungsholm. Unable to sleep because of the high seas, vodka in hand, he began writing a story about a boy who embellishes his walk home from school. In time to the stroke of the ship’s engines, he found himself mumbling:
and that is a story that no one can beat, and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.(And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
After a reasonable number of mumbles, Mrs. Geisel feeling that enough was enough, suggested to her cartoonist husband that he work up an illustrated children's book in which this couplet might be happily buried. He did so. According to one report, 27 publishers rejected it; according to another, 43. Their reasons were irrefutable: verse didn't sell; fantasy didn't sell; Mulberry Street would improve neither the child’s character nor his or her earning capacity. But the 28th or 44th publisher had no hat for business; he just liked Mulberry Street.
When I leave home to walk to school, dad always says to me ". Marco, keep your eyelids up and see what you can see." But when I tell him where I've been and what I think I've seen, he looks at me and sternly says, "your eyesight’s much too keen. Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into Whales." Now, what can I say when I get home today?(And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
What could he say indeed? For a childless man, Geisel seemed to have the ear for what made the younger generation pay attention.
That's nothing to tell of, that won't do of course... just a broken down wagon that's drawn by a horse.(And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
Children's books of the day were manuals of moral rectitude. It was a way to teach manners. Dr. Seuss's Mulberry Street was not only a reflection of the child's penchant for imagination and exaggeration…
That can't be my story. That's only a start. I'll say that a ZEBRA was pulling that cart!(And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
If one is trying to teach a child good manners in the old kind of Victorian sense of the word, one might not think that Mulberry Street sets a good example because it’s wild and talks about fabricating stories.
With a roar of its motor, an airplane appears and dumps out confetti while everyone cheers! (And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
With its jingly-jangly, yell-it-out-loud verse, with its aggressively visible cartoony pictures,
yes, the zebra is fine but I think it's a shame: such a marvelous beast with a cart that's so tame. The story would really be better to hear if the driver I saw were a charioteer. A blue and gold chariot’s something to meet, rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street! (And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
(Geisel once said "I observed life through the wrong end of the telescope" ("Dr. Seuss") Mulberry Street thumbed its nose at blandness and sentimentality, and boldly asserted the right to exaggerate. He had an eye and ear for seemingly silly details….
And that makes a story that's really not bad but it still could be better... suppose that I add... a Chinese man who eats with sticks... a big magician doing tricks... a 10 foot beard that needs a comb. No time for more, I'm almost home. For I had a story that no one could beat , and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.(And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street)
and he put parents in their proper place.
but dad said quite calmly, "just draw up your stool and tell me the sights on the way home from school." There was so much to tell I just couldn't begin. Dad looked at me sharply and pulled at his chin.
Geisel wasn't trying to establish morality or rules. He was merely establishing the truth about human nature and the intelligence of children. In fact, Beatrix Potter said it was "the truthful simplicity of the untruthfulness" (And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street). Dr. Seuss’ Mulberry Street sold moderately well at a time when children's books were falling out of favor, especially for the children who had to read them. Indeed, the advent of television caused illiteracy rates to soar during the fifties and sixties. The children's books of the day were the same ones that Ted had read as a child in the early 1900s. The children's books of the day were very simplistic in that the children did not act like children at all. They were obedient and very clean and so nice and not at all the way children really were. With the "Why Johnny Can’t Read" controversy in the national spotlight, Ted Geisel and Random House publisher Bennett Cerf created Beginner Books, a concentrated effort to create stories children would find interesting enough to read, yet would teach children fundamental vocabulary.
Then he got up on top with the tip of his hat " I call this game fun in a box" said the cat. (The Cat in the Hat)
Mulberry Street was only the beginning. Bennett challenged Ted to write a book using only 225 words. He accepted the challenge. It was not easy. He read the list 40 times and got more and more discouraged each time. It was like trying to make strudel without any strudels. Desperate, he decided to write a story around the first two words that rhymed...Cat and Hat. The most important thing about Ted is that he works like hell: write, rewrite: reject, re-reject and polish incessantly. To write a 60 page book, he writes more than 1000 pages before he's satisfied.
The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day. All we could do is just sit, sit, sit, sit. And we did not like it. Not one little bit. (The Cat in the Hat)
And of course into the story Ted introduced chaos and the way kids really behave and things they are sort of scared about and fascinated about as well.
We looked and we saw him, right there on the mat. We looked and we saw him, the cat in the hat. And he said to us, "Why do you sit there like that? I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny." (The Cat in the Hat)
The way that Geisel used these words was fun and exciting; there was action.
"Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now! It is fun to have fun but you have to know how. I can hold up the cup and milk and the cake. I can hold up these books and the fish on the rake." (The Cat in the Hat)
The Cat in the Hat made obsolete Dick and Jane forever, its 225 basic words persuading the beginning reader that reading could be fun. The way he taught these lessons was not the way that anyone else taught them. He told the truth that children make messes and get into trouble and are faced with dilemmas in life. There are issues of responsibility…
"It is good," said the fish. 'He has gone away, yes. But your mother will come. She will find this big mess...and this mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we cannot pick it up. There is no way at all." And then, who is back in the house? Why, the cat! "Have no fear of this mess," said the cat in the hat
The dilemmas faced by children are very much like the dilemmas faced by everyone. That's why adults enjoy reading his books, often as much as their children. Released in the spring in 1957, The Cat In The Hat became a national phenomenon within three years and sold nearly one million copies. The Cat in the Hat: in French it’s Chat Chapeau…in Spanish it’s El gato en el som-brer-o(El Gato en el Sombrero). The book is available in 27 different languages Asi es que todo lo que podiamos hacer era sentarnos! sentarnos! sentarnos! sentarnos! Y no nos gustaba. Ni una pizquita (The Cat in the Hat). The books taught children who don't know how to have fun…to have fun and taught children who know how to have fun to be responsible. Moreover, the books enticed children to read.
Indeed, 20 years after his first children's book, Theodore Geisel became Random House’s best-selling author. Dr. Seuss was hailed as the savior of children's literacy. The irony was that Ted's success was, in some ways, a curse for him. Not only were Mr. and Mrs. Geisel childless, Dr. Seuss once said, "You produce ‘em-- I amuse ‘em" ("Dr. Seuss"), The Cat In The Hat phenomenon forced the intensely private man into the public eye. Ted Geisel, who hated crowds, cameras and interviews, had one more challenge to face: children. He was forced to face his fans, and for him, that was the worst possible scenario. He had a difficult time dealing with others. Children were especially problematic. He didn't like children. He didn't have anything against liking them. Dr. Seuss: "Some kids are great and some kids are creeps" ("Dr. Seuss"). He said he didn't like the creeps. He liked the good ones and that was that. As the father of contemporary children's literature, Geisel was commonly guest of honor at social events promoting his books and literacy. He liked his work getting recognized. He was very gratified by the influence it held, but that was his work, and he had a lot of distrust and wariness of any efforts to kind of make him an icon. He felt he was not interesting to talk to, but children expected that if he was the man who wrote all those wonderful stories and tales, then when he spoke it would be the same way.
"I know just what to do!" the Grinch laughed in his throat. And he made a quick Santy Claus hat and a coat. And he chuckled, and clucked, "what a great Grinchy trick! With this coat and this hat, I look just like St. Nick." (How The Grinch Stole Christmas)
And he was not that way. After all, he was a grownup human being. He had almost no experience with children, so he did not know how to act around them. He was a naturally shy person even around adults. With children, that shyness was magnified tremendously. At first he was somewhat stiff. As he made appearances, he became better and better and realized that talking to them as he signed was something that they liked. And that was important. Ted was a person who really cared about pleasing other people. For a man who linked with others so beautifully with writing, he seemed genuinely afraid he would disappoint them. It's part an insecurity thing. He thought that if they looked up and didn't see a clown or Santa Claus they would think he was a phony. And that he could not bear. There were famous stories of children coming up and knocking on his door asking to see Dr. Seuss. Geisel says "I'm Dr. Seuss" and the kids responded "No, you're not" ("Dr. Seuss"). He never made it sound like he was bitterly disappointed that they were disappointed. He just thought it was funny. Geisel's publisher would receive as many as 1000 letters a week addressed to Dr. Seuss, ranging from requests for money to birthday greetings. Ted called the weekly responses his "cat notes" and often responded in Seussian verse. He did not believe children lived in some mysterious place he couldn't plumb. He certainly had an affinity for it, but he wasn't immersed in some love of the children's life. However, when it came to his work, there was no doubt. Geisel once said, "I'd rather do that than anything I know. I write for myself. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don't know so many words. If your story is simple, you can tell it just as you’re telling it to adults" ("Dr. Seuss"). The Cat In The Hat, based on 225 words, was so successful, Bennett Cerf bet Ted Geisel that he could not write a beginner book using only 50 words. Ted worked on the new book for a solid year, writing and rewriting. The result was the most popular and best-selling Dr. Seuss book ever: Green Eggs and Ham.
That Sam-I-Am. That Sam-I-Am. I do not like that Sam-I-Am.
He showed how much could be done with just those few words. Also, the story itself was mischievous... it was fun. Ted's rhyme was perfect and makes it easier for kids to sound out words… and it also bounces along. The whole story has a little more action. "You do not like them so you say. Try them, try them and you may. Try them and you may I say " (Green Eggs and Ham). Once again, Ted made a point about broadening one’s horizons. "Sam, if you will let me be, I will try them and you'll see" (Green Eggs and Ham). He left the page blank, just showing the character contemplating the food while others watched. It was a great lesson to children about trying things before making a decision about them. "Say, I like Green eggs and ham. I do. I like them Sam-I-Am. And I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat. And I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see " (Green Eggs and Ham). Jaime Lee Curtis points out, "It was really brilliant… about closing one's mind off to something, while pointing out to children that opening one's mind... taking a risk... might result in a happy discovery. Just that is a life lesson for a child" ("Dr. Seuss"). "And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE! I do so like Green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-Am! " (Green Eggs and Ham). Green Eggs and Ham was not only a phenomenal success, it also launched a flurry of best-selling books, more than one per year, which have become classics in children's literature.
Everything was laid out in those books to be as easily read as possible: The placement of words, vocabulary that was used. The pictures carefully illustrated everything that was said so a child could figure out what the words meant from the picture. Geisel had specific rules for writing: "In my books, action on a page goes from left to right to train the eye to follow the written text in the same way as the illustration, and it would encourage the child to turn the page to go on to find out what was going to happen next" ("Dr. Seuss"). As editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, Ted Geisel issued a series of guidelines for authors and illustrators for creating books for children. Illustrations had to be simple and full of action. The vocabulary had to adhere to the age limitations. Noted authors such as Roald Dahl and Truman Capote tried to write for beginner books, but could not adhere to the guidelines. Another aspect of Dr. Seuss books was Ted's life perspective... his ideas and viewpoints were becoming more clear in his work. People were used to children's books being wholesome and moral, but not necessarily political. His wife encouraged Ted to write a morality tale on pollution and greed, "The Lorax", a serious departure from the usual Seussian antics. In "The Lorax", the mysterious Onceler cuts down Truffula trees to make Thneeds, which nobody needs. Despite plaintive pleads from a creature called the Lorax to stop, the forest is destroyed. "'Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better... it's not. So catch!' calls the Onceler, and he lets something fall. 'It’s a truffula seed…it’s the last one of all. Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water and give it fresh air. Grow a forest; protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back' " (The Lorax). The Lorax speaks for the trees and has become something of a hero to ecologists. But his lesson impresses because of the Once-ler in his Snuvv, and the Brown Bar-ba loots and those suspicious Thneeds, and the whole crazy action conjured up in rhyme and picture. But not everyone was favorably impressed. Sales of The Lorax were sluggish for a Dr. Seuss book. According to Mrs. Geisel, "The idea of doing a book for kids with a message that is this dramatic and almost dogmatic, propagandistic if you will, really kind of disturbed some people" ("Dr. Seuss"). But Ted Geisel was not deterred. Dr. Seuss: "If you are not patronizing and if you are not false, you can discuss practically anything with children. Adults are just obsolete children: To hell with them. I want to reach them before they become obsolete" ("Dr. Seuss"). And that's what he was intending to do.
In 1975, Ted experienced an affliction that would seriously jeopardize his livelihood. His eyesight began to fail him, making work impossible. Several years of surgeries followed before his vision improved. And when he was better, he began to notice his world in a new way. He said "Look at the color around us. Look at the brilliance" ("Dr. Seuss"). He immediately sat down with pen and paper and created a new book to celebrate his newly restored vision. )I Can Read With My Eyes Shut) He dedicated his book to his eye surgeon. "You can read about anchors. And all about ants. You can read about ankles! And crocodile pants!" ()I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)). It is a celebration of reading and seeing. "Young cat: if you keep your eyes open enough, oh the stuff you will learn, the most wonderful stuff" ()I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)). Ted just wanted everyone, kids especially, to enjoy what they take for granted. "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go. If you read with your eyes shut, you're likely to find the place that you're going is far, far behind" ()I Can Read With My Eyes Shut). He learned from his illness how important it was to appreciate the simple things and he wanted his audience to start much earlier than he did.
So that's why I tell you to keep your eyes wide: keep them wide open, at least on one side. ()I Can Read With My Eyes Shut)
By this time in his life, Ted Geisel was nearing his 80’s. His health was failing and he was often tired. He survived a heart attack and was treated for cancer. Mrs. Geisel: "To me it was maintenance... whenever there is a problem, we would go see a doctor and we would get it fixed. And I tried to encourage Ted to stay active."("Dr. Seuss") He went out with his wife a lot: in some ways, she kept him alive. He wrote fewer beginner books and began focusing on books for older children, including more socio-politically bent titles such as In )Yertle the Turtle), a fascist turtle is brought down by his own greed and avarice. In )The Butter Battle Book) two sides push each other to the brink of catastrophic war over a disagreement over which side of the bread should be buttered. Ted also reflected the indignities of getting old in a comedic book designed for older folks but written in the same witty format as are beginner books. )You’re Only Old Once: a book for obsolete children) Narrator one: Released as a book for adults, )You're Only Old Once)topped the New York Times bestseller list. In a year, over one million copies had been sold. The reality was that Dr. Seuss was nearing an end, and Ted Geisel must have known that, for the last book that he published was an ode to life and exploration. By 1986, Ted didn't go out any more. He was quite ill most of the time. As Ted Geisel retreated to his studio, the idea for a book that would become his farewell message emerged. )Oh The Places You'll Go) reflected Ted's life and its optimistic adventurous outlook. "Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). He celebrated his lifelong interest in education and literacy and the impact it could have on giving a person the freedom to direct his own life. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). Mrs. Geisel: " ()Oh The Places You'll Go)).Ted always had faith in the potential for children. They have everything to look forward to, and they have opportunities ahead of them." ("Dr. Seuss"). Dr. Seuss knew that sometimes they just need encouragement and support. "Be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights. You’ll join the highfliers who soar high Heights. You won’t lag behind because you'll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). He was also honest with children. "I'm sorry to say so but, sadly, it's true and Hang-ups can happen to you" ("Oh The Places You'll Go"). That life has downs as well as ups… "You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You'll be left in a Lurch" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). Mrs. Geisel: "It seems so clear that he was not knowing where he was going to go pretty soon. He talks about the end of life’s journey and the journey that we make beyond that. It's a book very much about the passage into the next world" ("Dr. Seuss"). "Simple it's not, I'm afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind. But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). But ultimately, his message was positive. "And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3 / 4 percent guaranteed)" ()Oh The Places You'll Go)). And as Ted began slipping away, he retained his deadpan humor to the end. Mrs. Geisel: "Ted would say "Am I dead now?" which is humor" ("Dr. Seuss"). On September 24, 1991, Theodore Geisel died in his studio a few feet from his drawing board and his creatures. He was 87 years old. "Dear Dr. Seuss. I am sorry you’re dead. I wish you weren't dead. I really like your books. My favorite is The Cat In The Hat. Please send some information. Yours truly, Dean" ("Dr. Seuss"). Every year on Theodore Geisel's birthday, classrooms across America celebrate Dr. Seuss and his books. And today still, Ted's message is passed on to children all over the world. Year after year, Dr. Seuss pumps fresh air into the world of children's books, wacking with the slapstick of comic fantasy the backside of whatever is stuffy or over instructive or mannered or self-consciously whimsical.
You're off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting so get on your way ()Oh The Places You'll Go).
There is no telling what the future is for Dr. Seuss. There is no telling what impact translations of his work will have on the future generations. Ted knew that once he was gone he would no longer have control of his work and things may change. Dr. Seuss once said, "When I'm gone, things will be different because the Creator will be gone. There are many ways to look at this…" ("Dr. Seuss"), but there is no doubt that for generations past and generations to come, Theodore Geisel, Dr. Seuss has shared his life, and perhaps all our lives, through his work.
"Dr. Seuss." Biography. Narrated by Harry Smith. Produced by Peter Terriel. New York: A & E Networks. 2003.
Geisel, Theodore and Audrey S. Geisel. Green Eggs and Ham. New York: Random House, 1960
________ The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971
________ Oh the Places You’ll Go. New York: Random House, 1986
Seuss, Dr. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. New York: Random House, 1937
________ The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
________ El gato en el sombrero, by Dr. Seuss, Carlos Rivera, (translator) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.
________ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
________ If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
Seuss, Dr. and A. S. Geisel. I Can Read With My Eyes Shut. New York: Random House, 1978.
© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006