Dr. Seuss: Facts And Stories You Didn't Know About The King Of Kids' Books
Theodor Geisel holding one of his most famous books. (newyorker.com)
Who didn’t grow up reading the fun-tastical books of Dr. Seuss? The rhymes were catchy, the stories had morals, and the illustrations were whimsical. From The Cat in the Hat to Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax to Horton Hears a Who, the stories were always clever and engaging. The genius behind these children's books, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, was just as interesting and creative as his beloved stories. To honor his contribution to children's literature, Geisel's birthday, March 2, is now celebrated as National Read Across America Day.
Dr. Seuss's Fondness For Booze Led To His Name
Theodor Geisel, who was born in Massachusetts in 1904, was the son of a prominent brewmaster. The taste for beer may have been in Geisel's DNA: When he was 18 and a student at Dartmouth College, Geisel and some of his buddies got caught drinking in their dorm room. This was 1922, when Prohibition was in full force, so as punishment for his deed, Geisel was removed from his position as editor-in-chief of the school's humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern, and forbidden from submitting any of his writing to the publication. He took his punishment with grace, meaning he absolutely continued writing for the magazine, just under a pen name. He decided to use his mother's maiden name, Seuss, and add the medical title to lend more credibility to his work, which included drawings of a crazed old woman riding a camel named Prohibition.
Life As A Cartoonist
After Dartmouth, Theodor Geisel enrolled at Oxford University with the goal of becoming a professor, but his time in England was short-lived. He soon decided to abandon the ivory tower in favor of a career that allowed him more creativity: cartooning. His illustrations were published in such popular magazines as Life, Vanity Fair, Judge, and The Saturday Evening Post. He spent 15 years working in the advertising department of Standard Oil, where his print ads were so well-received that Viking Press reached out to Geisel to ask him to illustrate a collection of children's verses called Boners, which meant something very different back then. The book didn't rise to great heights, but it gave Geisel the opportunity to branch out into children's literature (among other things). His first children's book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was released in 1937.
He Couldn't Draw Nudes Very Well
Theodor Geisel tried his hand at writing and illustrating a book for adults in 1939 when he released The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which was illustrated with drawings of semi-nude women. Despite its salacious subject matter, the book was a dismal flop. Geisel blamed his drawings, joking that his talent was better-suited to fanciful trees than "sexy" women, which is really part of the reason we have Dr. Seuss, as we know him, at all.
Dr. Seuss Goes To War
When World War II broke out, Theodor Geisel was too old to enlist but still wanted to do his part to help the war effort. He created weekly political cartoons and later worked for the U.S. Army, making animated training films, propaganda posters, and advertisements. One of the projects he worked on, a film called Design for Death, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1947. Among his more popular animations during the war was his series Private Snafu, about a dimwitted soldier bumbling through army training.
A Full-Time Children's Writer
After the war, Theodor Geisel committed himself to writing children's books on a full-time basis, setting up a workshop and writing for at least eight hours every day. He felt that the popular children's books of the time were an embarrassment: boring, simplistic, and meaningless. To prove that children's books could be entertaining as well as educational, he wrote The Cat in the Hat, which he cleverly crafted to include 236 of the 250 words that first-graders were taught to memorize at the time. Over the next few decades, he produced some of his best work, which includes If I Ran the Zoo and How the Grinch Stole Christmas in addition to the capped feline.
Up For A Challenge
One day, during a discussion with his publisher about the nuances of children's books, Geisel's publisher challenged him to write a children's book using only 50 different words. He could repeat the words, but the total number of unique words could not exceed 50. Geisel happily rose to the occasion, generating a story about a picky eater who refused to try a new food but wound up liking it in the end. The resulting publication, Green Eggs and Ham, remains one of his most popular books.
Dr. Seuss Never Had Children
Although Theodor Geisel was twice married, he never fathered any children. The matter seemed settled when he and his first wife, children's author Helen Palmer, found out after many attempts to conceive that she couldn't have children, but that was just the beginning of Palmer's troubles. She struggled with depression that worsened after she learned in rapid succession that she had cancer and her husband had been having an affair, and she committed suicide on October 23, 1967.
Less than a year later, Geisel got remarried to Audrey Stone Dimond, the woman with whom he'd had his affair. She had two children from her first marriage, and that's how Geisel liked it. Despite his child-centric career and his attempts to conceive with his first wife, Geisel was uncomfortable with children and their unpredictable little brains, admitting once that "in mass, they terrify me." When asked about the prospect of fatherhood, he sometimes quipped "You have 'em; I'll entertain 'em." Other times, he launched into elaborate tales about a fictional daughter named Chrysanthemum Pearl, bragging that she could make "the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate frosting."
Dr. Seuss Invented The Word "Nerd"
Theodor Geisel is credited with inventing the word "nerd," which he used in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo. In the story, he writes about many wondrous beasts, including "a Nerd from the land of Ka-Troo." Although the furry yellow animal in the book appears to be neither socially inept nor overly intellectual, the word resonated with readers and somehow came to describe such a person.
A Creative Genius
It's hard to imagine that Dr. Seuss was ever at a loss for a good idea, but like all writers, he was occasionally hit with writer's block. When that happened, he had a trick up his sleeve, or rather, in his closet. He collected hats in all shapes and styles, and when he needed inspiration, he tried on a few dozen hats. One of his early books, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, even pays homage to this habit.
Tags: 1900s | childrens books | literature
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