Great stories and a great storyteller: Bob tells flannel board tales via Zoom to our next-door neighbor, age three. His parents gave the experience a rave review. "This is the quietest he's been since this shelter in place started (except when he's sleeping)." Folktales, told "without the book," have a mysterious power over even the most rambunctious preschooler.
I wrote Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote ‘The Cat in the Hat’ to give young writers a peek behind the curtain, a view into the process of a master picture book creator at work. At the back of the book you will find five writing tips that I distilled from Dr. Seuss’s interviews.
Here’s an expanded version of these writing tips:
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.”
Reaching this goal—a goal that seemed so simple but proved so difficult—took him a year. But setting a challenging goal paid off in the end. He didn't just create one single book, he invented a whole new kind of book—beginning readers that were also pure fun.
Dr. Seuss knew, of course, that he need more than just an exciting subject. He needed an exciting subject he could write about using simple, everyday words.
In conversation, six-year-olds understand and use thousands of words, yet it can be a struggle for them to read these same words on a page. What to do?
Dr. Seuss’s had his story take place inside a simple, everyday house. His style of rhyming helped kids guess words they didn’t already know. Of course, his artwork made his simple story funnier—and scarier. He encouraged kids to keep reading by making every page turn into a cliff hanger. Would the cat fall off the ball? Could the kids catch Thing One and Thing Two? How would they ever clean up the house before their mother came home?
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."
Like many Seussian sayings, this was an exaggeration. Dr. Seuss could draw dogs quite well. For example, he deftly drew a dog named Max for the book he wrote right after The Cat in the Hat—How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
In real life, Dr. Seuss really 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. But no cats.
Another strength Dr. Seuss drew upon was his ability to tell a story in rhyme. Early in his picture book career, he had written 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 his books exclusively in rhyme.
Because he had to use a just a few hundred short words, Dr. Seuss could not allow himself to draw on one of his greatest strengths: making up long, silly words. He lamented that writing The Cat in the Hat was a near-impossible task, "like making apple strudel (a delicious pastry) without the strudels." Dr. Seuss was joking; "strudels" weren’t really a part of apple strudel. "Strudel" was the German word for ‘waterfall’, and described what the pastry looked like, not what it was made of. Dr. Seuss, who grew up speaking German at home, and whose mother worked in a bakery, knew this very well.
Tip #3: Stir up story ideas by doodling
“Mine [my books] always start as a doodle. 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,” Dr. Seuss declared.
According to Dr. Seuss, drawing was the easy part of creating a picture book. It was the writing that was hard.
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 animations in my mind. At least the best ones begin this way. I doodle away as I expand the story ideas, too.
Tip #4: Recycle, recycle, recycle
Throughout his long career, Dr. Seuss recycled his favorite characters. He drew elephants long before he created Horton, he drew Grinch-like creatures before the Grinch, and he drew wacky cats in silly hats years before he created The Cat in the Hat. By the time he sat down to sketch his famous feline character in 1955, he had already drawn three very familiar looking cats:
(Note: I’m not able to reproduce these early Seuss creations here because of copyright restrictions, but you can find them, along with other Seuss cats, in The Annotated Cat by Philip Nel, pages 36-37.)
Tip #5: Revise, revise, revise
Dr. Seuss was a perfectionist. He took to heart one of his father’s favorite sayings, “Whatever you do, do it to perfection.”
“To produce a sixty-page book,” Dr. Seuss told an interviewer, “I may easily write a thousand pages before I’m satisfied. The most important thing about me, I feel, is that I . . . write, rewrite, reject, re-reject, and polish incessantly.”
Many people told Dr. Seuss he was a genius, to which he replied, “If I’m a genius, why do I have to work so hard? I know my stuff looks like it was all rattled off in 28 seconds, but every word is a struggle, and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.”
No wonder he made up tall tales to explain how he wrote his books. The truth is rather scary.
Blogger’s note to children: Please, don’t work as hard as Dr. Seuss until you are much older. For now, your creative writing should be more fun than work.
Some history of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, including the version by legendary animator, Chuck Jones.