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
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?
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.
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!
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.