Featured Author: Dr. Seuss

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Cat in The Hat, Cover

This year is the fortieth anniversary of The Cat in the Hat (Hardcover, Library Binding, Bilingual Spanish, Cassette) and that makes this a good opportunity to take a look at the contributions of Dr. Seuss. He began writing children's books in the 40s and most of them are still in print and even though he has been a favorite of several generations of children, it is only in recent years that children's literature writers and critics have even deigned to mention his name. No one has ever claimed that Seuss was a great poet, although many of his books use rhyme. Few would hold him up as one of the great illustrators yet neither can they deny his talent and capacity for creating delight in millions of readers.

First, a few facts about his life: Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Geisel in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was the curator of Forest Park Zoo. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Geisel launched a career in advertising, creating ads for Flit, an insecticide produced by Standard Oil. These ads consisted of a cartoon drawing of people enjoying a relaxing time reading or resting only to have a grotesque bug-like creature approach. The caption always read, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" Looking at those cartoons today, you can see the seeds of the creatures that would later appear in his children's books.

The contract with Standard Oil precluded doing other commercial art for other companies but it didn't forbid doing children's books.and so he wrote To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (Hardcover, Library Binding), using the pen name Dr. Seuss, intending to keep his real name, Theodor Geisel, for more serious work. Seuss was his middle name and he put Dr. in front of it because his father had always wanted him to be a doctor. The book was rejected by twenty-nine publishers before it was accepted. Many commercially successful children's books followed.

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He started his Cat in the Hat series when he read an article by the novelist John Hersey who observed that the early readers used in schools were pallid and idiotic. Told that they had to be because they used only words on the Dolch reading list, Seuss took 223 of those words and created a funny, zany book worth reading. Together with his wife Helen Palmer, he launched a whole line of Beginner Books some of which he wrote and illustrated. Sometimes he wrote under the name of Theo. LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards) and let others illustrate. Still others were done by other authors and illustrators but they all used the same, scholastically approved word lists, and revolutionized children's beginning reading books. Some adults developed an aversion to Seuss's books by reading such books as Green Eggs and Ham (Hardcover, Library Binding, Cassette) aloud one too many times. Do remember that they are really intended to be read by very new readers for whom the short, choppy sentences with repeated phrases can be reassuring. Dr. Seuss died in California in 1991, a time of mourning for many of his readers.

I think it helps to view the work of Dr. Seuss by categories. It seems to me that his books fit neatly into three such groupings with some minor overlapping: fables such as Yertle the Turtle (Library Binding, Hardcover), fairy tales such as The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (Hardcover, Library Binding), and outlandish, exaggerated tales such as If I Ran the Zoo (Hardcover, Library Binding).

Seuss was one of the few authors of children's books who could get away with moralizing. His zany illustrations and rhymes allow the reader to enjoy the books and recognize the morals without feeling the weight of a sermon.

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His first book To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street is the prototype for all his outlandish tale books. We start with a simple situation, in this case, young Marco going home from school but he knows that his father will interrogate him on his return home and be dissatisfied with his observation of nothing more than a horse and a wagon on Mulberry Street. So, he starts adding interest to the sight, changing first the horse and then the wagon to bigger more outrageous things. We worry about Marco, knowing that his father will not believe him, urging him to stay closer to reality, stretching the truth only slightly, but Marco's imagination is in full gear. Then, he reaches home and his father asks the dreaded question, "What did you see on the way home from school.?" and Marco tells him, not the wild sights in his head, but what he really saw, "a horse and a wagon on Mulberry Street".

It has been said that, in those tales, Seuss adds more and more tension as if over-inflating a balloon until we, the readers, can't stand waiting for the "pop!" and then he doesn't pop it, he just deflates the balloon. In Cat in the Hat, for instance, we know that the mess being created has reached an unmanageable state. The illustrations add to the tension as the hour of atonement approaches. Those kids will never get the mess cleaned up before their mother comes home and they'll be punished and it isn't their fault. Then, just before she arrives, the mess is cleaned up and the children are left speechless when she askes what happened while she was gone.

His illustrations are fascinating in that he really only draws one human face: all his people look alike with minor adjustments. His creatures look simplistic until you try to imitate them. His landscapes are notable for their creation of distance. His rhyme schemes are simple but he has created for us a slew of outlandish names and places. His books are timeless and much of the humor is best appreciated by more mature audiences. If you're teaching children from third grade up, suggest that they take another look at their favorite Dr. Seuss to discover more satire and humor than on their earlier encounters. If you're teaching kids from kindergarten up, you probably have no need to introduce them to Dr. Seuss, he's in their hearts already.

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