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A tip of the hat to Dr. Seuss

Sunday, February 29, 2004

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On a blustery day early in 1937, a young man named Theodor Seuss Geisel trudged along New York City's Madison Avenue. His manuscript for a children's picture book titled "A Story That No One Can Beat" had just been rejected as "too different" by the 27th publisher, and the disconsolate Geisel was heading home to burn it.

Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, who died at age 87 in 1991, changed the way children learn to read.

Before he could make it to his apartment, however, Geisel literally bumped into a Dartmouth College friend, Mike McClintock, who just three hours earlier had become the children's book editor of Vanguard Press. McClintock brought his friend up to meet his bosses, who agreed to publish the book as long as Geisel agreed to change the title to something snappier.

He did, and a few months later, Vanguard published "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street," written and illustrated by "Dr. Seuss," a nom de plume that Geisel created using his middle name.

Years later, Geisel told his friends Neil and Judith Morgan, authors of "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel," "If I had been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I'd be in the dry-cleaning business today."

Instead, Geisel, now known to most people simply as Dr. Seuss, went on to become one of the most successful and beloved children's book creators of all time, injecting a note of zaniness into the often stodgy world of children's literature with such characters as Horton the Elephant, Yertle the Turtle and the Cat in the Hat.

Once voted "least likely to succeed" by his college classmates, Geisel eventually published 44 groundbreaking children's books, selling hundreds of millions of copies in 20 languages.

In 1957, Geisel, a perfectionist who worked long hours to produce his seemingly effortless rhymes and illustrations, pushed the boundaries of the children's book world even further. His book, "The Cat in the Hat," using just 225 words, revolutionized the way children learned to read, giving the boot to the "Dick and Jane" primers.

Geisel ended 1957 with another literary tour de force as he published his modern holiday classic, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" In the years that followed, he solidified his position as the world's most entertaining reading teacher with such books as "Fox In Socks" and "Green Eggs and Ham," which was written using just 50 words.

Later Dr. Seuss books, championing environmentalism ("The Lorax") and skewering the nuclear arms race ("The Butter Battle Book"), have retained their edge as cultural critiques. And his last book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" is a perennially popular graduation gift.

"Dr. Seuss is probably the one common denominator of American culture," said children's book expert Anita Silvey, author of the forthcoming "100 Best Books for Children." "My guess is that almost all of us have read at least one Dr. Seuss book."

His success isn't a mystery, added Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post and author of a new autobiography, "A Open Book."

"Seuss' books are so insidiously enjoyable because they celebrate the subversive, insouciant delight -- and dangers -- of going too far. The rhymes and pictures start off quietly, then everything on the page gradually whirls out of control."

At heart, however, all of the books "honor imagination and gumption and individuality," said Dirda. "They challenge us to live our own lives and to think for ourselves. They are very American classics."

This year marks the 100th birthday of the late Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss, and there are a number of national events planned for the "Seusscentennial." Among the celebrations are a national tour of an interactive show, exhibits devoted to his work, the issuance of a U.S. stamp bearing his likeness and special graduation events at colleges and universities from which he received degrees and honorary degrees.

On March 2, Gei-sel's birthday, the sixth annual "Read Across America," sponsored by the National Education Association, will take place. As part of the event, celebrities, athletes, politicians and others will read Dr. Seuss' books to millions of children around the country.

Born in Springfield, Mass., the man who became Dr. Seuss was the second child of Henrietta Seuss Geisel and Theodor Geisel, owner of a brewery. The young Geisel and his older sister, Marnie, spent long days roaming their neighborhood, made frequent trips to the library and spent summers at a beach cottage in Connecticut. He particularly loved to play with his dog, Rex, who was known as "Seuss' three-legged dog" because he walked on only three of his four paws.

The youngster also became very familiar with the local zoo, where his father was on the board of directors. After being forced to give up his brewery because of Prohibition, Geisel's father eventually became the zoo superintendent, something that, years later, may have given his son the idea for one of his books, "If I Ran the Zoo."

But Geisel's childhood memories were marred by anti-German sentiment. Other children made fun of the fact that his family, while staunchly American, still retained some German customs.

As Kathleen Krull relates in her new picture-book biography, "The Boy On Fairfield Street" : "Sometimes they chased him or beat him up. It was on the playground that Ted developed his strong awareness of injustice."

When he was 13, Geisel was one of 10 Boy Scouts scheduled to receive an award from President Theodore Roosevelt for selling the most U.S. Liberty Bonds. Because of a mix-up, there were only nine medals, and when Roosevelt got to Geisel, who was the 10th in line, he roared, "What's this little boy doing here?" Geisel was quickly guided off the stage. But he never forgot his embarrassment and avoided speaking in public for the rest of his life.

Geisel was a rather indifferent student, preferring to spend much of his time doodling. His parents, especially his mother, encouraged his drawing, even allowing him to draw on the attic walls with crayon. But they didn't expect him to follow a career in art; in fact, his mother hoped that her son would one day become a doctor. She got her wish years later -- although her son never became the kind of doctor she had expected.

In high school, he took his only art class, but quit when his teacher scolded him for breaking rules and warned him that he would never be successful in art. When he graduated, his classmates voted him "Class Artist and Class Wit."

Despite his mediocre grades, Geisel was accepted at Dartmouth College. There, he spent his happiest time writing for a student magazine called Jack-O-Lantern, which used humorous writing and illustrations to comment on the news of the day. In his senior year, he became the magazine's editor, but was forced to give up the post some months

later as punishment for breaking college rules with an overly boisterous party.

Ever creative, Geisel found a way to keep writing for the magazine by signing his verses and illustrations with his middle name. It was the first time -- but not the last -- the world would hear of a man named "Seuss."

From the publication of "Mulberry Street" onward, Geisel -- now Dr. Seuss -- spent most of his time creating children's books. He took time off only for brief stints in World War II and in Hollywood, where he had mixed success trying to translate his creativity to the screen.

Settling in La Jolla, Calif., in 1948, Dr. Seuss didn't make much money at first from his children's books. But he did work hard at them, often toiling over a rhyme for hours and even weeks and trying dozens of colors to get just the right shade for an illustration.

He once said the creative process boiled down to two things: "time and sweat." But he was thrilled to have found what seemed to be just the right outlet for his wild imagination, his penchant for exaggeration and his stubborn efforts to try to right the wrongs of the world.

From the beginning, some adults felt that Dr. Seuss books were a problem because they encouraged young readers to think for themselves and question authority. But children immediately took to the author as a kindred soul.

"His books always have an air of mischief. But I think he mixed wisdom with hijinks. Kids feel that they are being taught something, but not in a way that is oppressive," said Leonard Marcus whose reviews of children's books regularly appear in Parenting magazine.

Interestingly, Dr. Seuss never had children. After his first wife, Helen, died, he married again, to Audrey Stone Dimond, and gained two stepdaughters.

However, he was like a child in many ways. He delighted in playing practical jokes. At a party in a fancy department store near the end of his life, he and a friend were found in the ladies' shoe department, laughingly switching the price stickers on dozens of boxes of shoes, the Morgans write in "Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel."

Three of his early books, "McElligot's Pool," "Bartholomew and the Oobleck" and "If I Ran the Zoo," received Caldecott Honors. But Dr. Seuss never won the Caldecott Medal, the Academy Award for picture books, although he did receive the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1980 for his body of work. In 1984, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize "for his contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents."

When Geisel died on Sept. 24, 1991, at the age of 87, there was an outpouring of sentiment around the world. The New York Times put the notice of his death on its front page, labeling him a "modern Mother Goose."

Time magazine called Dr. Seuss "one of the last doctors to make house calls -- some 200 million of them in 20 languages, [continuing] beyond Dr. Spock to a unique and hallowed place in the nurseries of the world."

And columnist Anna Quindlen wrote that Dr. Seuss was a man "who took words and juggled them, twirled them, bounced them off the page. No matter what the story in his books, the message was clear and unwavering: words are fun. ... He is remembered for the murder of Dick and Jane, which was a mercy killing of the highest order."

Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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