Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!
(March 2, 1904-Sept. 24, 1991)
By Borgna Brunner
At the time of Theodor Seuss Geisel's death in 1991, his 46 children's books had sold more than 200 million copies, and his last, Oh, the Places You'll Go! (1990), was still on the bestseller lists. His books, which he both illustrated and wrote, have been translated into twenty languages as well as Braille.
Better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss, he populated his his odd and fanciful children's books with a hybrid bestiary of Wockets, Whos, Grinches, bunches of Hunches, Bar-ba-loots, red fish, blue fish, and a fox in socks. He once remarked in an interview, "If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up."
His stories march forward at an incantatory, rhythmic pace, and are full of tongue-twisters, word play, and highly inventive vocabulary. The American Heritage Dictionary in fact credits Dr. Seuss as the originator of the word nerd, which made its first appearance in his 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo: "And then just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo a Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!"
His books were originally considered too outlandish to appeal to children. His first, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937), was reputedly rejected by twenty-eight publishers before it finally found a home at Random House. It was one of the company's most prescient decisions: former Random House President Bennett Cerf once remarked, "I've published any number of great writers, from William Faulkner to John O'Hara, but there's only one genius on my authors list. His name is Ted Geisel."
Among his most famous books is The Cat and the Hat (1957), a story about two children who find themselves home alone with a roguish, hat-wearing feline who is a study in bad behavior. With only 223 vocabulary words and much repetition, it was ideally suited for beginning readers and became a lively alternative to the wooden dullness of the "See Spot run" primers. And Green Eggs and Ham (1960) managed with a vocabulary of just fifty words to tell the story of a Seuss creature's relentless crusade to introduce a hapless furry character to a revolting dish.
In addition to becoming one of the world's most loved children's writers, Ted Geisel worked as a political cartoonist, an advertising illustrator, and a documentary filmmaker. In addition to the pen name Dr. Seuss, he also wrote under the pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. He graduated from Dartmouth College, where he edited the school humor magazine, and pursued a Ph.D. in English literature at Oxford, ultimately dropping out when he decided his studies were "astonishingly irrelevant." They certainly did little to aid his phantasmagorical imagination in the creation of the environmentally conscious Loraxes and fractious Sneetches, not to mention the indescribable Zubble-wumps and ooey-gooey green Ooblecks. Dr. Seuss claimed his ideas started with doodles: "I may doodle a couple of animals; if they bite each other, it's going to be a good book."
—Borgna Brunner is the Senior Editor at Information Please.