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Known by the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel distinguished himself as a children’s author with his innate understanding of children and a genuine respect for their individuality and imagination. He is recognized for his inventiveness, diversity, humor, and lack of inhibition in the picture books he wrote and illustrated for over fifty years. Many of his works feature characters now accepted as contemporary folklore, including the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch who despises Christmas. In addition, Seuss is credited with initiating a new type of children’s literature: pleasure reading for beginning and reluctant readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
No Talent for Art
Born on March 2,1904, Theodor Seuss Geisel grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was an avid reader and loved to draw, but his childhood dream did not include becoming an author and illustrator of children’s books. When Seuss was in high school, an art teacher told him that he would never learn to draw and advised him to skip the class for the rest of the semester. As an adult, Seuss maintained that his lack of formal art lessons only ensured that he would develop a distinctive style of his own.
Cartoons and Advertising
After high school, Seuss attended Dartmouth College, where he became the editor of Jack-o-Lantern, the school’s humor magazine. In the journal, Seuss contributed numerous drawings of bizarre cartoon animals, the very kinds of illustrations that would eventually appear in his children’s books. With the intent of becoming an English professor, Seuss enrolled at Oxford University for graduate school, but he abandoned his literature studies when Helen Palmer, a fellow student who had watched him doodle in class, encouraged him to pursue cartooning. In addition to taking her advice, Seuss made her his chief advisor and manager, and the two married in 1927.
The couple returned to the United States, and soon Seuss was marketing drawings and prose pieces for such magazines as Life and Vanity Fair. When one of his cartoons caught the attention of the Standard Oil Company, Seuss was contracted to illustrate billboard advertisements. Although his advertising work became famous, he still had other ambitions, which included writing serious fiction and humor for adults; however, his contract with Standard Oil prohibited outside writing except for children’s books.
The Dr. Seuss Persona Is Born
After writing and illustrating an ABC book, which contained all sorts of fantastic animals, Seuss could not find a publisher for it, and he did not try another children’s book for four years. Written in verse inspired by the rhythm of ship engines on a transatlantic voyage, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) introduces Seuss’s fascination with the potential of a child’s imagination. As with his ABC book, however, Seuss had difficulty in finding a publisher until a former Dartmouth classmate, whom he had encountered by chance, accepted the work for Vanguard Press. At this time, Seuss decided to use his middle name for his children’s books, saving his last name for more serious writing. He added “Dr.” as a flippant reference to the doctorate he never finished at Oxford.
War in Hollywood
The outbreak of World War II forced Seuss to give up writing for children and devote his talents to the war effort. Working with the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army in Hollywood, he made documentary films for American soldiers. One of these Army films, ”Hitler Lives,” won an Academy Award, a feat Seuss repeated with ”Design for Death,” a documentary about the Japanese war effort, and the cartoon ”Gerald McBoing-Boing,” featuring a little boy who can speak only in sound effects. Because filmmaking involves coordination between words and pictures, Seuss credited his experiences in Hollywood during these years as invaluable to his development as a children’s book author.
Bright and Early Books
In a mid-1950s article entitled ”Why Johnny Can’t Read,” John Hersey claimed that beginning primers, such as the Dick and Jane series, were dull and unimaginative and made children view reading as a job rather than a pleasure. Hersey suggested that fanciful writers be recruited to create more interesting books that would still stimulate a child’s vocabulary. In response, Seuss published The Cat in the Hat, regarded as a revolutionary work because it demonstrates that books for beginning readers can entertain children as well as teach them to read. Because of its success, Seuss founded Beginner Books, a publishing company that was later acquired by Random House with Seuss as its president. Seuss continued to publish books for the fledgling reader; by the late 1960s he was writing and illustrating ”Bright and Early Books for Beginning Readers,” a series for preschoolers, which emphasizes simple language and sentence structure and focuses on subject matter engaging to very young readers.
Seuss and Beginner Books created many modern classics for children, from Green Eggs and Ham (1960), about the need to try new experiences, to Fox in Socks (1965), a series of boisterous tongue-twisters, to The Lorax (1971), a comment on environmental preservation. In 1986, Seuss published You’re Only Old Once, a very different kind of book that follows an elderly gentleman’s examination at The Golden Age Clinic on Century Square, where he is subjected to pointless tests by merciless physicians and grim nurses. According to Seuss, who was eighty-two at the time, this story is much more autobiographical than anything else he had written. Although Theodor Geisel died on September 24, 1991, Dr. Seuss lives on, inspiring generations of children of all ages to explore the joys of reading.
Works in Literary Context
According to scholar Heinz Insu Fenkl, ”Seuss was always quite honest about his rhetorical intentions. He referred directly to the influence of writers like Belloc, Swift, and Voltaire, and did not hesitate to refer to his own radical and revolutionary ideas.” His literary tools include rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and the invention of words, all of which influenced such children’s writers as Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein.
Positive Messages for Children
Even at his most extravagant, Seuss centered his works around positive values. Many of his books contain veiled moral statements that balance the zaniness of his characters and situations. Concerned thematically with creativity, tenacity, loyalty, and self-confidence, Seuss also explores political and social issues such as racial and religious prejudice, conservation, and the nuclear arms race. Seuss typically leaves his readers with a lighthearted optimism. In both The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, for example, Seuss pushes the limits of good behavior and common sense, permits the chaotic consequences, then careens back to a safe and familiar world. However, his satire on the possibility of nuclear war, The Butter Battle Book (1984), deviates from this lighthearted approach in its ethical lesson. A thinly disguised portrayal of the United States and Russia, the work presents readers with an open ending: two characters from opposing countries stand poised on a dividing wall, each figure holding a bomb. Seuss said that the ending of The Butter Battle Book is up to the adults of the world, a philosophy that generated much controversy but did not affect the book’s popularity.
Works in Critical Context
Critics admire Seuss’s works for their remarkable ingenuity, as well as their brilliant integration of text and illustration. Praised as an outstanding nonsense poet and storyteller whose books are ideal for reading aloud, he is also considered a moralist who offers children a positive and enthusiastic view of life. While some critics view Seuss’s involvement with beginning readers as a limit to his creativity, most academics agree with journalist Miles Corwin, who says, ”[Seuss] has had a tremendous impact on children’s reading habits and the way reading is taught and approached in the school system.” Although some critics disapprove of his unconventional English and unschooled art, most praise Seuss as an imaginative genius.
The Butter Battle Book
Accustomed to the light-hearted, whimsical side of Seuss, the public was shocked by 1984’s The Butter Battle Book, which introduces children to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Focusing primarily on the book’s content and not on its literary merit, critics and parents alike have questioned the appropriateness of Seuss’s topic for a children’s book. Such concern is reflected in the comments of reviewer Anne L. Okie: ”The language of the story rhymes and amuses in customary Seuss fashion … one wonders, however, if a book for young children is a suitable vehicle for such an accurate and uncloaked description of the current stalemate in nuclear disarmament.” Particularly disturbing to readers is the ending because it offers no resolution, an issue that incited the ire of reviewer David R. Bechtel: ”I was . . . angry at Dr. Seuss, the storyteller, for tricking me.” Indeed, the man who shows children how to escape reality by the power of their creative imagination in so many other books appears to see no creative antidote for the modern threat of nuclear war.
Despite concerns from critics and the general public, The Butter Battle Book was overwhelmingly successful, and Seuss won a Pulitzer Prize the year it was published. Admirers of the book point out that Seuss had always been a moralist, taking stands against prejudice, tyranny, ecological abuse, and other flaws in human beings. In The Butter Battle Book, they contend, Seuss takes a tough moral stand in showing children that their elders have been foolish and that their foolishness threatens the survival of the world. As John Garvey notes, ”The book’s description of the illogical nature of the arms race is uncomfortably true: there really is something crazy about what we have done and continue to do.”
- Bader, Barbara. American Picture books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
- Greene, Carol. Dr. Seuss: Writer and Artist for Children. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1993.
- Lystad, Mary. From Dr. Mather to Dr. Seuss: 200 Years of American Books for Children. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
- MacCann, Donnaroe, and Olga Richard. The Child’s First Books. New York: Wilson, 1973.
- MacDonald, Ruth K. Dr. Seuss. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
- White, Mary Lou. Children’s Literature: Criticism and Response. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1976.
- Bechtel, Daniel R. ”Dr. Seuss, Prophet to Giant-Killers.” The Christian Century vol. 101, no. 12 (April 11, 1984): 359.
- Garvey, John. ”Guns & Butter: Dr. Seuss’s Liberal Sentimentality.” Commonweal vol. CXI, no. 14 (August 10, 1984): 423-24.
- Okie, Anne L. ”The Butter Battle Book (book review).” School Library Journal (May 1984): 24.
- Fenkl, Heinz Insu. The Secret Alchemy of Dr. Seuss. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://www. endicott-studio.com/rdrm/forseus.html.
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