It’s difficult to imagine the children’s book landscape without Dr. Seuss, who is, almost half a century after The Cat in the Hat, the best-recognized children’s book writer in the country. But until Dr. Seuss -- a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Geisel -- reinvented the genre with his colorful and exuberant Sneetches, Grinches, Zaxes, and Zooks, children’s books were often little more than literal-minded lessons and cautionary tales intended to transform young readers into productive citizens.
Now that generations of readers have been reared on The Cat in the Hat and Fox in Socks, it's easy to forget how colorless most children's books were before Dr. Seuss reinvented the genre. When the editorial cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1936, the book was turned down by 27 publishers, many of whom said it was "too different." Geisel was about to burn his manuscript when it was rescued and published, under the pen name Dr. Seuss, by a college classmate.
Over the next two decades, Geisel concocted such delightfully loopy tales as The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Horton Hears a Who. Most of his books earned excellent reviews, and three received Caldecott Honor Awards. But it was the 1957 publication of The Cat in the Hat that catapulted Geisel to celebrity.
Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read, along with a related Life magazine article, had recently charged that children's primers were too pallid and bland to inspire an interest in reading. The Cat in the Hat, written with 220 words from a first-grade vocabulary list, "worked like a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot," as Ellen Goodman wrote in The Detroit Free Press. With its vivid illustrations, rhyming text and topsy-turvy plot, Geisel's book for beginning readers was anything but bland. It sold nearly a million copies within three years.
Geisel was named president of Beginner Books, a new venture of Random House, where he worked with writers and artists like P.D. Eastman, Michael Frith, Al Perkins, and Roy McKie, some of whom collaborated with him on book projects. For books he wrote but didn't illustrate, Geisel used the pen name Theo LeSieg (LeSieg is Geisel spelled backwards).
As Dr. Seuss, he continued to write bestsellers. Some, like Green Eggs and Ham and the tongue-twisting Fox in Socks, were aimed at beginning readers. Others could be read by older children or read aloud by parents, who were often as captivated as their kids by Geisel's wit and imagination. Geisel's visual style appealed to television and film directors, too: The animator Chuck Jones, who had worked with Geisel on a series of Army training films, brought How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to life as a hugely popular animated TV special in 1966. A live-action movie starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch was released in 2000.
Many Dr. Seuss stories have serious undertones: The Butter Battle Book, for example, parodies the nuclear arms race. But whether he was teaching vocabulary words or values, Geisel never wrote plodding lesson books. All his stories are animated by a lively sense of visual and verbal play. At the time of his death in 1991, his books had sold more than 200 million copies. Bennett Cerf, Geisel's publisher, liked to say that of all the distinguished authors he had worked with, only one was a genius: Dr. Seuss.
Good To Know
The Cat in the Hat was written at the urging of editor William Spaulding, who insisted that a book for first-graders should have no more than 225 words. Later, Bennett Cerf bet Geisel $50 that he couldn't write a book with just 50 words. Geisel won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, though to his recollection, Cerf never paid him the $50.
Geisel faced another challenge in 1974, when his friend Art Buchwald dared him to write a political book. Geisel picked up a copy of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! and a pen, crossed out each mention of the name "Marvin K. Mooney," and replaced it with "Richard M. Nixon." Buchwald reprinted the results in his syndicated column. Nine days later, President Nixon announced his resignation.
The American Heritage Dictionary says the word "nerd" first appeared in print in the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo / And bring back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo / A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" The word "grinch," after the title character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as a killjoy or spoilsport.