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In my picture book, Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', I include five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews and from the recollections of his friends and family. Here’s a little more about the fifth tip:
Tip #5: Revise, revise, revise
Dr. Seuss was a perfectionist. “To produce a 60-page book,” he once told an interviewer, “I may easily write 1,000 pages before I’m satisfied. The most important thing about me, I feel, is that I . . . write, rewrite, reject, re-reject, and polish incessantly.”
As Bruce Handy observes in Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult, Dr. Seuss showed us that "discipline is not the enemy of creativity."
Dr. Seuss thanked his first Random House editor, Saxe Commins, for teaching him the value of revision. Commins worked mainly with adult authors, including Ernest Hemingway. Dr. Seuss remembered Commins telling him that "I had as much responsibility to take time and work hard as they did. He helped me realize that a paragraph in a children’s book is equivalent to a chapter in an adult book.”
Blogger's note: For young writers, Tip #5 should probably be "Write, write, write" (oh, and also "Read, read, read"). Maybe just one single "Revise."
In my picture book, Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', I include five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews and from the recollections of his friends and family. Here’s a little more about the fourth tip,
Tip #4: Recycle, recycle, recycle
Over the course of his career, Dr. Seuss recycled the "look" of characters. For example, there was a long series of elephants before Horton. Several grinchy creatures lurked in illustrations before the Grinch was born. Zany cats in hats preceded the creation of the Cat in the Hat. By the time Dr. Seuss sat down to sketch his soon-to-be famous feline character in 1955, he had already drawn close cousins, including
· a magicians’ cat in a tall, forward-tilting hat, for Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949)
· Ormie, a cat created for a Ford Motor Company ad. Ormie stands upright and wears a tall blue-and-white striped hat, white mittens, and a red ruffled collar. (1949)
· the rangy tabby cat in The Bippolo Seed (1951)
(Reproductions of these and other early Seuss cats can be found in The Annotated Cat by Philip Nel, pages 36-37. For reasons of copyright, I can't show them here.)
Blogger's note: All authors and illustrators recycle. Keep your drafts. Keep your failures, especially. The good bits will come in handy later!
In my picture book, Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', I include five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews and from the recollections of his friends and family. Here’s a little more about the third tip:
Tip #3: Stir up story ideas by doodling
“[My books] always start as a doodle,” declared Dr. Seuss. “I may doodle a couple of animals. If they bite each other, it’s going to be a good book. If you doodle enough, the characters begin to take over by themselves—after a year and a half or so.”
(I love these wacky descriptions of his creative process.)
Also, according to Dr. Seuss, drawing was the easy part of creating a picture book. It was the writing that was difficult.
Blogger’s note: I agree that doodles are very useful. Even though I am not an illustrator, my story ideas almost always begin as doodles on paper, or as little cartoons in my head. I continue doodling as I expand the story ideas, too.
In my picture book, Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', I include five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews and from the recollections of his friends and family. Here’s a little more about the second tip:
Tip #2: Draw on your strengths
"The truth is that I like dogs better than cats, but I don't know how to draw a dog."
Dr Seuss was having fun with this interviewer, as he often did. He could draw dogs quite expertly. For example, he deftly depicted the Grinch’s dog, Max, for the book he wrote right after The Cat in the Hat.
But in real life, Dr. Seuss was a dog person, not a cat person. At the time he wrote The Cat in the Hat, he and his wife Helen owned an Irish setter.
Another strength Dr. Seuss drew upon was his ability to tell a story in rhyme. Early in his picture book career he wrote three children’s picture books in prose--The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, The King’s Stilts, and Bartholomew and the Oobleck. But beginning with If I Ran the Zoo (1950), he wrote all his books in rhyme.
When writing The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss had to use his rhyming skills in a new way, because he was not allowed to make up long, silly words. He had to use simple words from a first grade list. He lamented that writing The Cat in the Hat was like making apple strudel (a delicious pastry) without the strudels. Dr. Seuss was making a joke: strudels weren’t really a part of apple strudel. Strudel was the German word for ‘waterfall’, which described what the pastry looked like, not what it was made of (Dr. Seuss, who grew up speaking German at home, knew this very well).
In my picture book, Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', I include five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews and from the recollections of his friends and family. Here’s a little more about the first tip:
Tip #1: Set yourself a challenging goal
“All I needed, I figured, was to find a whale of an exciting subject which would make the average six-year-old want to read like crazy.” That’s what Dr. Seuss told an interviewer from The Saturday Evening Post in 1957, soon after The Cat in the Hat was published.
To accomplish this goal—a goal that seemed so simple but turned out to be so difficult—took him about twice as long as creating what he called a "big book" (like Horton Hears a Who, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas).
Dr. Seuss knew, of course, that he needed more than just an exciting subject. He needed an exciting subject that he could write about using only simple words from a very short list. He wasn't able to use the names of faraway places, or even the names of wild animals, so he settled upon a fantasy adventure that took place inside an ordinary 1950’s suburban house.
To make six-year-olds want to “read like crazy,” (and also be able to read like crazy) he added Seussian touches, for example,
People are forever asking authors where we get our ideas. Dr. Seuss gave the perfect answer, in my opinion.
“This is the most asked question of any successful author," he told an interviewer. "Most authors will not disclose their source for fear that other, less successful authors will chisel in on their territory. However, I am willing to take that chance. I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock repaired. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.”
It was a challenge to write a biographical book about Dr. Seuss. Biographers search for facts about their subjects. In interviews, Dr. Seuss delighted in mixing fact and fiction. When a reporter would ask him a serious question, Dr. Seuss, as often as not, would respond with a completely outlandish story. But an entertaining story. Like the Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss was an irrepressible entertainer.
When asked about the process of writing The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss made up a number of tales. For example, he once told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune newspaper that he had wanted to write about a jungle tiger. His editor liked the idea, said Dr. Seuss, but insisted that he change the word ‘jungle’ to ‘house’, and the word ‘tiger’ to ‘cat’.
What’s a biographer to do? In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, I included at least one fairly believable, tall-ish tale of his in the book (look for the words ‘queen’ and ‘zebra’)
Some rhymes for 'dictionary' suggested by an online rhyming dictionary. Hmmm.
Almost anyone who writes in rhyme uses a rhyming dictionary—at least some of the time. However, the best rhymes usually come from the deep reaches of a poet’s memory and unconscious. Personally, I suspect that using a rhyming dictionary could keep me from discovering a great rhyme, like Dr. Seuss’s pairing of “Apartment 12-J” with “hidden away” in Horton Hears a Who. If I’d been using a rhyming dictionary when I began writing Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems, I might have given up when I discovered that there is no rhyme for penguin.
Words that rhyme in English can have vastly different spellings, and words that have similar spellings can have different pronunciations. This makes using a rhyming dictionary difficult. My husband owned a copy of The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary when I met him, and I turned to it when I began writing poetry for children. The book uses phonetic spelling to distinguish between vowel sounds. Nothing breaks the spell of writing poetry more quickly than having to learn phonetic spelling.
My favorite rhyming dictionary (a print dictionary, though sadly out-of-print) is Sue Young’s Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary. It contains only words I would really use, and they are given in vertical lists with lots of white space around them (and some cartoon illustrations besides). There is an index, but no phonetic spelling is required.
Online rhyming dictionaries eliminate the need to consult an index or learn a phonetic spelling system. There are some great online rhyming dictionaries, and some not-so-great ones (some appear to have been written by robots). I’ve watched a couple change and get worse.
Online rhyming dictionaries are used mostly by songwriters, who count on singers to shape the sounds of their words in performance. Songs can contain “near rhymes” or “slant rhymes.” A poem on the page is held to a higher standard. Does 'bill' rhyme with 'real'? Does 'room' rhyme with 'tune'? In a children’s picture book, probably not.
My current favorite online rhyming dictionary is Rhymezone. On Rhymezone, the most commonly-used words are highlighted in dark blue. This helps me skip past unlikely and unlovely candidates. As a bonus. Rhymezone offers many examples of how a particular word has been rhymed in classic poems, and in popular songs, from Broadway musicals, to jazz, to country and western, to rap. I love this feature because it puts the rhymes in a creative context.
But even Rhymezone suggests far too many words that just don’t rhyme—see Rhymezone's partial list of rhymes above for the word 'dictionary'.
It’s a widely-reported fact* that Dr. Seuss selected the words in The Cat in the Hat from a list of 348 words given to him by William Spaulding, the director of the education division of the publishing company, Houghton Mifflin.
Number of words on the original list given to Dr. Seuss: 348
Number of unique words he was supposed to use: 225
Number of unique words he actually used: 236
Total number of words in the book: 1,629
Words used only once: 54
Words used just twice: 33
Number of one-syllable words: 221
Number of two-syllable words: 14
Number of three-syllable words: Only 1--another
For fun: here’s a link to an activity sheet that shows all 236 words in The Cat in the Hat. You c-o-u-l-d try to make a story from them, but I must warn you that it took the very talented Dr. Seuss at least nine months to do it, including (according to one of his tongue-in-cheek “true stories”) several months working in his Uncle George’s coal mine.
*But was there really a 348-word list? I have not been able to track it down, nor do the words in the book match popular word lists used at that time. I think there was a list, but that Dr. Seuss adapted it to include words that rhymed with words on it, along with compound words like plaything. The only person's name in the book—Sally—was the name of the little sister in the Dick and Jane readers.
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.