Approaching 30 years since his death, Dr. Seuss sits poised to publish a new book from his perennial throne on the bestseller lists (WHAT.). Meanwhile, the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory musical theater department rehearses Seussical, Jr. down stairs from the blog office for its run in the TECO theater April 25-28. Why do we love this whimsical rhyme-every-time mastermind?
Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” working on a drawing for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957.
Okay, so first we’re going to call out a line from Dr. Seuss and then you say what book it’s from (answers at the bottom, no cheating!)
“Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person no matter how small.”
“I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them with a mouse.”
“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”
“And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump!”
How’d you do? We’re willing to bet you know you got at least three of them right without even having to check.
If you were ever a toddler in America, some grown up introduced you to the world of Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” partially to build your reading comprehension skills and keep you entertained but, also, that adult wanted a socially acceptable reason to be reading The Cat in the Hat. We spend a lot of time in the world of Dr. Seuss, as children, students, teachers, parents … chances are—if you’re a parent of small children reading this blog at home—you can look up and see Geisel’s early childhood canon littered along the floor.
Seuss gave us the Lorax, Things 1 and 2, Mulberry Street, Horton, Daisy-Head Mayzie, Yertle, a fox in socks and a wocket in a pocket. He helped us discover the joys of feet, sleeping, learning our ABCs and the myriad ways to hop on Pop. Seuss extolled the places we would go and taught us the very valuable adage regarding those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
Seuss’s first success, like many creative folks of his era, was in advertising. He won a big contract for Flit, an insecticide. His tag line, “Quick, Henry, get the Flit!” went viral, becoming a popular phrase at the time. He entered the waters of children’s lit with And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, a story he invented on a cruise ship as he started writing in his head to the sound of the engine.
What happened next in Who-ville was nothing less than a carefully calibrated literary coup de grace overthrowing insipid Dick-and-Jane primers for more imaginative, more important teaching texts. In 1955, the book Why Johnny Can’t Read debuted, exposing the scandalous data that European children outpaced and outperformed their American cohort at alarming rates. In the United States, schools used Dick and Jane readers that were, as noted in Why Johnny Can’t Read, “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless” pictograms of unnaturally clean white children experiencing “dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ activities.”
Why Johnny Can’t Read explained the fundamental problem: America believed children learned language through memorization only. Incorrect. Children needed phonics—the ability to group and comprehend words built on common sounds. That way, when a new reader encountered an unfamiliar word, she could draw on contextual knowledge of like-sounding words to memorize meaning faster than memorizing in a vacuum.
After all, this was Cold War 1955, and there was no way in hell American children were going to be dumber than the Russians, especially with the launch of Sputnik on the horizon and threats to democracy everywhere. Not gonna happen. American kids needed to get smarter, like, now.
Houghton Mifflin publisher William Spalding directed their education division when Why Johnny Can’t Read made headlines. Spalding invited Geisel to dinner, gave him several of the first-grader word lists printed in the back of Why Johnny Can’t Read and begged Geisel to give him a page-turner for a seven-year-old. Keep in mind that Dr. Seuss already had the two Horton books and a few notable others under his belt by this working dinner with Spalding. However, he’d never been issued such a challenge before: Spalding wanted him to write a whole kid’s book only using limited words from the lists. Spalding planned to sell the book to school systems as a reading textbook—a reader that would enthrall first graders and rocket boost their intellect.
Geisel chose 199 words, realized he couldn’t get an entire story out of the ones he chose, so he added twenty-one others of his own. The tasked proved almost too much for the great Dr. Seuss. Flummoxed, frustrated and on the verge of quitting, Geisel decided he’d make the title out of the first two words he saw that rhymed.
“Cat” was first. Then, “hat.”
As New Yorker writer Louis Menand noted in his excellent 2002 article on this subject, “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. … Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force.” Most notable, Menand concludes, “it killed Dick and Jane.”
The takeaway here, people, is that Dr. Seuss not only wove us into his psychedelic world of trippy trees and loveably drawn cat-people with socially conscious messaging, but he obliterated a reading method that did not work. He tried, using all the gifts he possessed and then some, to give us the opportunity to make ourselves better by being smarter, more caring of ourselves and our environment (social and natural) and rhyming like our lives depended on it.
Audrey Siegler, the theater managing director working on the Patel Conservatory’s production of Seussical, Jr. says, “Dr. Seuss’s works speak to a vast audience ranging over all ages and backgrounds. His stories promote social and educational skills while challenging readers to expand their imaginations and explore a world of new possibilities. Some sad, some nonsensical, some inspirational; Seuss integrates emotion with language through unique characters and invites readers to learn through play. Producing Seussical, Jr. is a complete joy.”
The other egg about to hatch (Horton reference) in Seuss-land is Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum, the next in a series of seven Dr. Seuss books published posthumously. The original but incomplete manuscript was found in Geisel’s La Jolla home in 2011 and features the illustrations of Andrew Joyner, who used Geisel’s sketches to bring the book to life. Random House plans to release Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum on Sept. 3, 2019.
Let’s hope the rhymes center around “horse” and not “museum,” yes?
1) Horton Hears a Who; 2) Green Eggs and Ham; 3) One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; 4) The Cat in the Hat