His art teacher said he couldn't draw. Publishers said he couldn't write. Yet his delightful books have made millions of youngsters fall in love with his words. In this beautiful story from the RD Archives (May 1992), Peter Bernstein recalls his personal connection to Dr Seuss and the Cat in the Hat.
Peter Bernstein tells the story of Dr Seuss, whose rhymes not only taught children how to read, but also the difference between wrong and right, leaving a legacy that will live forever in the hearts of generations.
The man behind the cat
“How would you like to meet Dr Seuss?" my father asked me. "I'm driving him to the airport."
"You mean the real Dr Seuss?" I said, my heart racing.
My father was sales manager for Random House, Dr Seuss's US publisher. And I was Dr Seuss's biggest fan—ever since Dad brought home The Cat in the Hat. How I loved that tale of a feline who visits two children while their mother is out and nearly demolishes the house in the interests of fun:
"I know some new tricks," said the Cat in the Hat.
"A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you.
"Your mother will not mind at all if I do."
As our car drew up in front of the New York hotel where Dr Seuss was staying, I saw a tall figure in a bow-tie and thick, black-rimmed spectacles.
"Peter, this is Mr Theodor Geisel," my father said. "You know him by his pen name, Dr Seuss." Surely this serious-looking "professor" couldn't be Dr Seuss. Where was the crazy, mischievous Cat?
As Dad drove, the soft-spoken Mr Geisel often turned and asked me questions, listening intently to what I had to say. When we approached New York's airport, then known as Idlewild, I asked my father, "What's an 'idlewild'?"
Dad tossed off a quick answer, but a minute later Mr Geisel slipped me a sheet of paper. It bore a drawing of a scrawny, smiling kangaroo-like creature with feet as big as pontoons and a tail as thick as a baseball bat.
"It's a wild idlewild, Peter," he said, grinning. Delighted, I knew then there was a "Cat" inside him. There really was a Dr Seuss.
Retrieving a lost generation of readers
Before Seuss, too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders.By the 1950s, educators were warning that America was losing a generation of readers.
"Before Seuss, too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders"
Seuss's witty, prank-loving verse delighted children. There were characters such as Mr Gump and his many-humped wump, lands like Whoville and Hippo-no-Hungus and foods like green eggs and ham. And his stories taught lessons.
Credit: Dr Seuss
Seuss's heroes, often as powerless as children, possessed moral integrity. In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton, the patient elephant, promises to sit on a bird's egg until she returns, and endures blizzards, taunts and hunters' arrows to keep his word.
When Seuss's books arrived in Britain in the early 1960s, early reading books were still of the "Janet and John" variety, and children pounced on Seuss's stories for their zany humour.
Today they still sell 100,000 copies a year in the UK. Worldwide, translated into more than 20 languages, the 48 books have sold 200 million copies—and earned Seuss a Pulitzer prize.
Seuss the writer, inventor, and perfectionist
As a kid, I didn't know all that much about Dr Seuss. What I did know was that my dad, who became president of Random House, thought the world of Ted Geisel—the author and the man.
Seuss, a perfectionist who could spend a year on a book, often threw away 95 per cent of his material before he settled on the theme and the illustrations.
Unlike most writers my father dealt with, Seuss never asked for an advance but preferred to get paid when his work was finished. Seuss took his work—but never himself—seriously.
As I got closer, I saw that the animal had a silly grin on its face, a shaving brush for a tusk, and antlers on its head. "That's a blue-green Abelard," Dr Seuss said, grinning. Soon he showed me other Seussian trophies concocted from kitchen, bathroom and garden utensils.
He had a gift for invention. When he needed a plumber, he would call and say the dipilator was broken. The plumber, embarrassed to admit that he didn't know what Seuss was talking about, would turn up promptly.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904, Theodor Seuss Geisel learned one of his most valuable lessons from his father. "He used to practise target shooting for half an hour every morning in the hope of breaking the world record," Seuss explained. "He taught me the importance of seeking perfection."
Credit: Dr Seuss
The elder Geisel was the town's park superintendent. Ted would visit the zoo, located in the park, and draw funny-looking animals, learning all the while about the world's species and their temperaments. His father's influence crops up in his books. If I Ran the Zoo tells the story of a little boy who imagines the strange creatures he'd capture for his own zoo.
Least likely to succeed
Witty and outgoing with friends, Seuss was insecure in crowds, a fear exacerbated by an incident when he was thirteen. During the First World War, Geisel's Boy Scout troop sold a record number of war bonds and were to be presented with medals by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Ted's troop sat on the stage as Roosevelt praised them and called out their names, one by one.
Finally, Ted was left alone on the stage. Roosevelt searched his list and glared at Ted. "What is this little boy doing here?" he asked. Ted's name had been inadvertently omitted. Years later, explaining why he seldom gave speeches, Ted recalled the shame. "I can still hear people saying, 'What is he doing here?'”
Seuss hardly seemed destined for greatness. His school art teacher told him, "You will never learn to draw." His peers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire voted him least likely to succeed. When he came to England as a post-graduate to study for a doctorate in English literature at Oxford, Seuss was bored by the lectures.
During one class he drew a cow with wings, an acrobat's body and a batty expression. Suddenly he heard a young female voice whisper, "That's a very fine flying cow."
Seuss turned and saw a pretty woman with blonde hair and a devilish grin. Her name was Helen Palmer, and she was a fellow American also studying English literature. Helen was Ted's first fan and became his wife in 1927—after he sold a drawing of eggnog-drinking turtles to finance their wedding.
Seuss dropped out of Oxford and studied briefly at the Sorbonne in Paris while Helen remained in England to finish her studies. Eventually the couple moved to New York. Helen supported them by teaching; Ted became a cartoonist for a magazine so close to collapse that he was paid in cases of shaving-cream and soft drinks.
Credit: Joe Wolf
Still, Ted persisted, never losing his sense of incongruous humour. Once, he drew a cartoon of a dragon threatening a knight. The knight was annoyed—he shouldn't be getting troublesome dragons when he'd just sprayed his castle with a popular insect repellent.
The cartoon caught the attention of the wife of an advertising executive, and Ted was soon hired to draw more strange flying creatures under the slogan "Quick, Henry, the Flit!"
For the next 12 years, the Flit cartoons provided the Geisels with a good, steady income at the height of the Depression. But Ted still wanted to be an educator and a writer.
In 1936, sailing home from a holiday in Europe, Ted made up rhymes to the beat of the ship's engines. Back in New York, he wove those rhymes into a children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, about a little boy who imagines improbable occurrences on the street where he lives.
He chose the pseudonym "Dr Seuss," using his middle name and the academic title he never earned at Oxford.
Seuss, the children's author
A total of 27 publishers rejected his manuscript. They said the story was silly, the rhymes nonsensical. Finally, in 1937, an editor agreed to take a chance, and Dr Seuss, the children's author, was born.
"Finally, in 1937, an editor agreed to take a chance, and Dr Seuss, the children's author, was born"
Several years later, Seuss, inspired by the lament that children aren't motivated to read, pressured his editors for a list of 200 words simple enough for five to six year-olds.
For six months, he spent eight fruitless hours a day at his drawing-board. Then one day he noticed his sketch of a brassy-looking cat with a stove-pipe hat and a tail coiled like a telephone cord. This cat was trouble—of the kind children love.
It took him a year and a half to take 228 words and carve a story. But by the end of 1957, its first year in print, The Cat in the Hat had sold 500,000 copies. Most important, the book turned a whole new generation of children on to reading.
Credit: Al Ravenna
In 1958 Seuss and Helen became heads of Beginners Books, a new division of Random House for limited-vocabulary stories. It set out to change the way children read, and succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of anyone but Seuss.
Three and four year-olds now strained to learn words once thought beyond them. Children came to school already able to read.
Credit: Dr. Seuss
Seuss loved challenges. In 1959, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf bet him that he couldn't write a coherent book with an engaging storyline using only 50 words. The result the following year? Green Eggs and Ham. It used only 49 words.
As I grew older, I came to love Seuss's grace in using small words to express big ideas. When I went to college, I took his books with me, partly for the happy memories, but also because those whimsical stories elucidated the difference between right and wrong in the most important place of all—my heart.
I may have been well past the language of Dr Seuss, but I was never too old for his message.
Leaving a legacy
Credit: Dr Seuss
I last saw Dr Seuss and his second wife, Audrey (Helen died in 1968), a few years ago at a book fair with my children. Except for being slightly frail and greyer, he was exactly as I'd known him. As I watched my older son, Alexander, stare at him in wide-eyed wonder, I found myself still believing there was a "Cat" in Ted Geisel.
"As I watched my older son, Alexander, stare at him in wide-eyed wonder, I found myself still believing there was a "Cat" in Ted Geisel"
There was one big difference, however. The Cat, with his anarchic wit and boisterous charm, would stay with the world for years to come. Ted Geisel, on the other hand, could not. When he died last September at the age of 87, my five-year-old son, Nicky, put his head down on the dinner table and cried.
"But Dr Seuss is supposed to live for ever," he told my wife Amy and me.
Afterwards, I sat beside Nicky's bed, re-reading The Cat in the Hat to him. He was riveted by the part of the story where the children watch the Cat in the Hat leave:
Then we saw him pick up all the things that were down.
He picked up the cake, and the rake, and the gown,
And the milk, and the strings, and the books, and the dish,
And the fan, and the cup, and the ship, and the fish.
And he put them away. Then he said, "That is that."
And then he was gone with a tip of his hat.
As I closed the book and turned off the light, I imagined Nicky one day reading the same book to his own children. And then I realised that what Nicky had said about Dr Seuss was true.
Theodor Geisel may be gone, but Dr Seuss—that Cat in the Hat—will indeed live forever.
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