J u d y
A third grader asked me this interesting question about The Great Dictionary Caper.
Yes and no. Yes, I did (more or less), but it was no ordinary dictionary. It was The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary by Sue Young, which is an essential tool for kids and for adults who write for them. Why? It only contains words that pretty much everyone knows or will eventually know, plus common short phrases. It's fun to read, and sometimes I browse through it just to get my brain in poetry mode. When I was writing Counting Crocodiles, this dictionary gave me the idea of having each group of crocodiles doing something silly that rhymed with either crocodile or croc. Also, it has funny illustrations.
The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary hasn’t been updated in many years, which is a shame because it includes some slang and brand names. It seemed to be out of print, but there are always used copies available for a couple dollars via the usual sources.
Celebrating Dr. Seuss' birthday by reading Wild About Books at Barnes and Noble in Vancouver, Washington, with their fabulous event planner Bjorn Sorensen. His official job title, "Community Business Development Manager," gives no hint of the way he can bring in a crowd, ramp up enthusiasm, and make an author feel awesome.
There is a new Marc Brown/Judy Sierra book in the works—a prequel to Wild About Books. It tells how all the animals built their unique zoo community (hint: a lot of math and many construction vehicles are involved). The book is tentatively scheduled for fall 2019.
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.
Writing a fabulous rhyming book isn’t easy. In interviews, Dr. Seuss tried to explain to non-rhymers why it took him so long to create stories that were so short.
"The problem with writing a book in verse is,” he told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “is to be successful it has to sound like you knocked it off on a rainy Friday afternoon. It has to sound easy. When you can do it, it helps tremendously because it's a thing that forces kids to read on . . . right through to the end—to the final beat.
"The main problem with writing in verse is, if your fourth line doesn't come out right, you've got to throw four lines away and figure out a whole new way to attack the problem."
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?
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
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.
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.