F O L K L O R E
C H I L D R E N S' B O O K S
P O E T R Y
A patas monkey and its preferred tree, the whistling thorn acacia, may have inspired Dr. Seuss's famous character and his Truffula trees.
The New York Times ran a piece about this, but it's definitely worth looking at the source, a paper in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution. The authors—three anthropologists (Nathaniel J. Dominy, Sandra Winters ,and James P. Higham) and a Dr. Seuss biographer (Donald E. Pease)--build their case on both scientific and literary detective work. The article is fun, it's convincing, and it will no doubt become a popular resource in middle school and high school classes. For example, the authors' applied facial recognition-type technology to certain monkeys, along with both the Lorax and a character from Dr. Seuss's The Foot Book. Graphics are included. The authors created a timeline of notes and sketches to argue that Dr. Seuss's encounter with African plants and animals played a pivotal role in the development of the book.
The Nature, Ecology and Evolution article could easily be the basis for lessons about artistic creativity, historical sleuthing, scientific method, and academic vocabulary. And we writers may wonder if and how Dr. Seuss missed making an important connection in the story.
After hearing his teacher read Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ a fourth-grader thought up his own, very funny Dr. Seuss-themed writing project.
The book Imagine That! explains how the Dick and Jane readers inspired Dr. Seuss to create something much better. But exactly how awful were The Dick and Jane books? This fourth-grader had never seen one. He decided to write and illustrate his own extremely awful story about Dick, Jane, Sally, and a cat whose name I can't decipher. The story was so boring, he gave up before page two.
What was Dr. Seuss's favorite of all his books?
It may have been The Cat in the Hat. In a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Seuss called it the book he was most proud of--
“I think I had something to do with kicking Dick and Jane out of the school system. I think I proved to a number of million kids that reading is not a disagreeable task . . . . I think I have helped kids laugh in schools as well as at home. That's about enough, isn't it?”
The Cat in the Hat was so successful that it inspired not just a sequel, but an entire company called Beginner Books, now a part of Penguin Random House. Beginner Books was founded by Dr. Seuss, his wife Helen, and Phyllis Cerf, the wife of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf.
Phyllis Cerf compiled a basic vocabulary list of 379 words. An aspiring author chose two hundred words from the list, adding as many as twenty “emergency words” of their own choice—so long as the emergency words would be easy for a young reader to pronounce.
Friends began sending manuscripts to Beginner Books. But unfortunately, not everyone was up to the task. Who would break the news to them? Dr. Seuss made up a completely fictitious employee, Dr. Outgo Schmierkase, whose only job was to sign rejection letters to would-be authors.
This story is part of the Seuss legend. Not long after The Cat in the Hat was published, Ted had lunch with his friend and editor Bennett Cerf, who bet Ted fifty dollars that he couldn’t write a beginning reader using just fifty different words. (Ted had used 236 different words in The Cat in the Hat.) Ted accepted the bet on the condition that he could choose those fifty words himself. Ted won the bet by writing Green Eggs and Ham.
Here are the fifty words. With the exception of anywhere, each word has just one syllable. Dr. Seuss used the word "not" 82 times, and the word "I" 82 times.
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
Challenge for readers: Did Dr. Seuss write Green Eggs and Ham in the same meter (rhythm) as The Cat in the Hat? See Kenn Nesbitt's Poetry4Kids if you need help.
Leading up to Dr. Seuss's birthday, March 2, I am publishing some tidbits I wasn't able to include in Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', along with answers to questions kids have asked me about Dr. Seuss as a writer and illustrator.
As soon as The Cat in the Hat was off his desk and in the hands of the publishers, Ted began work on his next book. It would be a Christmas book. And it turned out to be as easy for him to create as The Cat in the Hat was difficult. How the Grinch Stole Christmas was published in the fall of 1957, giving readers the second of two classic Seuss tales in one year.
It seems that Dr. Seuss identified closely with both the Cat and the Grinch. He drew sketches of himself as each character. Later, he ordered a personalized California license plate for his car. The license plate read GRINCH.
It’s easy to find a list of the 236 words that Dr. Seuss used in The Cat in the Hat (he used many of these more than once, of course).
But I wanted to know which words he didn’t use. After all, he often told interviewers that the Houghton Mifflin publishing company gave him a longer list of words that all first graders should know. Using some words from the list (in many versions of the story, he was originally asked to use 225), Seuss was to concoct a tale that would “make the average six-year-old want to read like crazy.”
I made inquiries, searching for that legendary list, but I couldn’t find it. Apparently, no archive holds it. Or is it top secret? For now, we can only guess what those other words were.
In their biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, Ted’s good friends Judith and Neil Morgan described his everyday routine:
Ted was sitting at his desk working by ten, and stayed there all day, every day, seven days a week, in complete silence. He drew using the drawing board from his cartoonist days in New York. His “best stuff,” he said, was written “on toward midnight” when he was looser, freer and “a bit tired.”
Dr. Seuss wrote most of his children’s books at his house in La Jolla, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Very few people were allowed inside his studio. His great nephew, Ted Owens, was one of the those few, and he recalled that the walls were covered with colored-pencil sketches. Pasted onto the sketches were the words of stories, with lots of cross-outs and corrections.
Blogger’s note: Yes, Dr. Seuss worked long, hard hours. But keep in mind that his grueling work schedule was punctuated by long, luxurious vacations to exotic places.
This is the story Dr. Seuss told of how he began to write in rhyme:
In the summer of 1936, he and his wife Helen traveled from Europe to New York aboard an ocean liner, the Kungsholm. Ted was 32 years old, and already well-known as a magazine cartoonist and advertising artist. As they sailed homeward, he began writing down ideas for his first children’s book.
The ship’s engine provided a noisy background beat,
da-da-DA-da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA
To the tempo of the engine, Ted recited a poem that he knew by heart,
“’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the house . . . .”
Then he began to compose his new children’s story to that same rhythm. The story became the picture book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. He would use this same basic rhythm and rhyme scheme, officially known as anapestic tetrameter, for nearly all his large format picture books for children. Many of the beginning readers use simpler rhythms. Can you match Green Eggs and Ham to its poetic meter?
This is a question a second-grader asked me. I told him:
As a child, Theodor Seuss Geisel loved to draw. His father used to say that Ted always had a pencil in his hand. On Sundays and on holidays, Papa Seuss took the family to the Springfield Massachusetts Zoo, where he served on the Board of Directors. Young Ted spent hours sketching the animals. His sister Marnie teased him about how silly they looked.
At home, Ted drew animals on the attic walls, but his mother didn’t complain. She saw his drawing as a talent to be encouraged.
Ted was a self-taught artist. He signed up for an art class in high school, but dropped out on the first day after the teacher criticized him for turning his paper upside down to fix a detail in his charcoal drawing. Instead of attending art classes, Ted developed his unique drawing style as cartoonist for his high school newspaper. Positive feedback from his friends and fellow students gave him the self-confidence to keep on drawing.
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.