I just finished a 430-page biography about Theodor Geisel. You might know him better as Dr. Seuss (his mother’s maiden name). When I chose the book to review, I expected a children’s biography, not an in-depth tome that chronicled his life year by year, from birth to death at age 87.
He had two wives, two step-daughters, forty books, two Caldecott Honors (a big deal for illustrators), a Pulitzer prize, and a house on a hill in La Jolla, California.
I learned that UC San Diego now has most of his original manuscripts, and that he went to school at Dartmouth and later failed at an attempt to earn a doctorate. In his lifetime he received 9 honorary doctorates, after which he called himself Doctor Dr. Seuss.
His fist wife was older than he was and couldn’t have children. She suffered from many health issues at the end of her life. She committed suicide at age 69, maybe because her husband was having an affair with his buddy’s wife. Ted married the buddy’s wife shortly after she left her husband, moved to Nevada to establish residency, and got divorced.
Dr. Seuss started out as an ad man in New York City and had big success with writing and drawing ads for an insecticide called Flit. He also wrote ads for Essolube and Essomarine Oil. He didn’t sell a children’s book until 1937 after it had been rejected 27 times. He bumped into a fellow Dartmouth alum who bought it and published it. And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was his first children’s book. His second book was also with Vanguard Publishing and was called The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.
During World War II, Geisel enlisted and worked on Private Snafu, a series of animated shorts showing a bumbling private who did everything wrong.
Dr. Seuss published all of his other books with Random House, which was started by Bennett Cerf (I had Bennett Cerf’s Book of Laughs as a child). Fifty years later, Dr. Seuss wrote and sold his last book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
But the biggest seller was Green Eggs and Ham, a book Geisel wrote using only fifty words. He was also proud of his first beginning reader, which stuck to a word list of 200 words, The Cat in the Hat, which sold over a million copies right off the bat.
As a side note, when I was a struggling reader, my teacher recommended that I read some Beginning Reader books. My parents bought me A Fly Went By (by his fellow Dartmouth alum named McClintock) and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. I was probably the only kid out there that read the sequel before the original The Cat in the Hat book.
I fell in love with Dr. Seuss because he helped me learn how to read. Plus he wrote in rhyme, and I write most of my children’s books in rhyme. I don’t have the luxury of making up words to finish the rhyme. My editors don’t allow it. Dr. Seuss got to do it because of who he was, plus he did it first.
Over the years I have collected most of the Dr. Seuss titles, but they aren’t shelved together, so now my goal is to find them and put them all in one place.
Some of Dr. Seuss’s art has been called racist. He did draw big-lipped black people and slanty-eyed Asian people back in the 20’s and 30’s, but he was not alone. It was acceptable in those days. The biographer doesn’t defend it, but he does explain it. Geisel has also been called out for having only male characters except for a couple (the sister in The Cat in the Hat who does nothing and lazy Maisey in Horton the Elephant).
When I write the review, I will look back at the notes I took in the margins. There is so much to remember regarding his 60+ year career. The thing I like the best is how Dr. Seuss said repeatedly that he was writing for people, not children. He was careful not to talk down to kids, even though he never had any of his own.
He was proud that he made reading more fun than the boring Dick and Jane primers. The ones at my school were called Alice and Jerry.
Wikipedia says he has sold over 600 million books translated into twenty languages. Theodor Geisel is an American icon.
Today would’ve been his 117th birthday.