Ever tried to write an entertaining children’s story using only 50 different words? That was what an editor challenged Dr. Suess to do over a $50 bet. In 1960, Seuss won the bet with publication of his bestselling classic Green Eggs and Ham, which became the fourth best-selling English-language children’s book of all time.
Very few can rival the legendary career and franchise that encapsulates the name “Seuss.” When he died in 1991 at the age of 87, he left us with 48 books selling over 222 million copies in 15 different languages (11 of which have been adapted for TV,) a Pulitzer award, and a Caldecott honor.
Cat in the Hat
His stories, all created to get children excited about reading, are timeless establishments in the American lexicon. Seuss never had children of his own, and he used to joke “You have them, I’ll entertain them.” His defining book The Cat in the Hat, was inspired by the Dick and Jane series, which, like many children’s books at the time, he found boring.
Many of his vivid narratives, language, and illustrations came from this sentiment, and he realized that the key to getting children to read more was to present literature in a way that was fun, stimulating and visually entertaining.
Read Across American – dedicated to Seuss
If he were still alive, Dr. Seuss would be blowing out 107 candles today. Instead, schools across the country are celebrating by honoring the National Education Association’s (NEA) 14th annual “Read Across America Day,” originally created in 1998 to commemorate Suess’s birthday and to continue his legacy in children’s literature.
First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, marked the event at the Library of Congress and read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham to 250 local elementary school students in the DC area. The children also listened to stories read by celebrities, including actress Jessica Alba, TV host Padma Lakshmi, and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. Smaller readings were scheduled at many locations nationwide.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known by his middle name, was a failed novelist by the time he published his first book, And to Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street in 1937. The idea came to him while riding a ship and he heard the sound and rhythm of its engine. The book was rejected 27 times before it was picked up by Vanguard Press.
Where the name comes from
He chose his pen name after he was caught drinking gin in 1925, during prohibition. Dartmouth, where he was enrolled, banned him from writing for the school humor magazine The Jacklelantern. Seuss was his middle name (also his mother’s maiden name), and he used it to avoid getting caught for continuing to contribute his writings.
The “Dr.” alludes to his father, who wanted him to get a doctorate at Oxford. His breakthrough year, 1957, saw the publication of both The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. His last book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, gained immense popularity as a graduation gift, and it continues to sell 300,000 copies every year.
Why does his work last?
Ask why his work endures, and anyone will attribute his popularity to his unique ability to tell adult stories in children’s language. “They’re still brilliant pieces of writing,” wrote The Guardian, “as well as the mad imagination, the language turns over with a poise as sure as the lyrics of Cole Porter, and the reader rides his characteristic anapestic metric schemes with effortless glee.”
His classic characters include what only the imagination can conjure– mischief-seeking cats in hats, elephants that hatch eggs, Whos that save Christmas by touching the Grinch’s heart and Loraxes that fight environmental abuse.
Horton and desegregation
The books also tackled underlying political themes: dictatorships, nuclear proliferation, environmental awareness, anti-Semitism and participatory democracy. Horton Hears a Who was written at the same time as Brown vs. the Board of Education to speak out against discrimination and petition the need for minority rights to make democracy work.
No story is without its underlying moral lesson, and that only adds to the charm of a “kaledoscope wonderland” that continues to captivate readers today.
“I like nonsense,” Seuss once said, “it wakes up the brain cells.” It’s also what makes his writing applicable to all ages, regardless of its language. The lessons and issues he addressed never grow old, and his stories were just as educative to parents reading them to children as they were for the children listening.
In a world where common ideologies like to separate how people see the world based on age, Seuss created an entire writing career around the thing that ties generations together–imagination.
Success built on imagination
Where experience jades, creativity rejuvenates, and it unites in ways that intellectually sound stories cannot. Imagination knows no boundaries, only connections, and in celebrating that through nonsensical characters and rhyme schemes, Seuss created an entire cultural dictionary that defines not only modern American folklore, but also an “insane logic” and childlike consciousness. It sounds simplified, but it actually tackles some of society’s biggest problems in ways that make much more sense in fiction than they do in reality.
Amy Tan once said that there are no answers in the world, only imagination, and no writer encapsulates that lesson more than a man who abhored preaching and instead taught both reading and moralism through the subtle subversion that challenged, rather than lectured, readers to reconsider their assumptions of right, wrong and everything in between.
Photo courtesy of B Rosen via Flickr