From my window, I watched the neighbourhood children heading off to school dressed in their World Book Day costumes. There were characters from traditional tales, Harry Potters, a tiger, a Dorothy, Peter Pan and a Worst Witch. Inevitably, there was a Cat in the Hat.
I became Cat in the Hat for World Book Day once. How did this character embed himself so deeply into our consciousness?
2017’s World Book Day coincided with celebrations commemorating the birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known world wide as ‘Dr Seuss’. Theodor Geisel created his pen name for two reasons. As a university student of Dartmouth College during the prohibition era, a pint of gin had been discovered in the party room he was sharing with nine friends. Immediately, he lost the editorship of the college humour paper, and was told the paper would no longer accept his submissions. The editorial board suggested he use his middle name ‘Seuss’ as a disguise, and his drawings and humorous verse continued to be published.
Later, at Oxford University, his soon-to-be first wife, Helen Palmer, discouraged him from finishing his PH.D, to pursue his writing career. Theodor Geisel’s father had hoped his son would become a doctor; the title ‘Dr’ in his pen name was an acknowledgement of that desire.
Dr Seuss’s family indulged and supported his early artistic and literary talents. After prohibition changed the fortunes of his family’s brewing company, his father used his associations to become superintendent of parks in Springfield, Massachusetts, where they lived. The parks included Springfield Zoo. The young Theodor developed an ability to create animal caricatures and an early interest in zany taxidermy, creating characters from discarded animal bills, horns, feathers, tusks or teeth. Young Theodor’s family considered him ‘a personality to be encouraged.’ Like his friends, they found ‘everything became brighter, happier and funnier’ when Theodor was around.
Dr Seuss remained loyal to his family and friends; he used his roaring ’20’s college handshake- ‘Oh the places you’ll go, the people you’ll meet’- in his final book of the same name. The message of open mindedness, tolerance and adventure seem more applicable to adults than children. First Lady, Melania Trump read ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’ on her visit to a children’s hospital on ‘Read Across America Day’. Sensei Yuka Yokozawa was gifted this book at the beginning of her big adventure, leaving our school, taking up the challenge of a marriage far away, and cycling the Silk Route- https://www.facebook.com/sushiandsambar/
When Dr Seuss found himself accidentally caught up in the Battle of the Bulge, he said, ‘Nobody came along and put up a sign saying, This is the Battle of the Bulge. How was I supposed to know? I thought the fact that we didn’t seem to be able to find any friendly troops in any direction was just one of the normal occurrences of combat.’ His nonchalant positivism appears fairly typical. He applied it as commander of the animation unit in Frank Capra’s documentary film- making corps during WWII for which he was awarded the Legion of Merit.
It may have been positivism that spurred him to take up the challenge to create a children’s book to appeal to young readers, including only vocabulary from a list of 220 beginner’s words. Research in the mid-1950’s revealed such a steep increase in illiteracy, that parents and children looked to publishers to ‘bring back a book children can’t put down.’ In 1957, ‘The Cat in the Hat’ was born. Not only did it adhere to the vocabulary limit, but was crafted in a cadence especially appealing to young readers. Dr Seuss had realised this metre when writing aboard ship, feeling and hearing the rhythm of engines.
Dr Seuss created the Random House Beginner Book series with Helen, and Phyllis Cerf, wife of Bennett, the company’s director. The books developed are considered to have ‘revolutionised the way that children learned to read’ through repetition, fun, colour, rhyme and rhythm.Titles included:- ‘If I Ran the Zoo’, ‘If I Ran the Circus’, ‘The Cat in the Hat Comes Back’, ’Horton Hears a Who!’, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish’ and ‘Hop on Pop.’
The American Library Committee developed the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for early readers in 2006. Each year a title deemed to be ‘the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year, demonstrating creativity and imagination to engage children in reading’ wins this prestigious honour. Past winners include ‘Don’t Throw It to Mo! ‘by David A. Adler and Sam Ricks (Penguin Young Readers), ‘You Are (Not) Small’, by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant (Two Lions, New York), ‘Tales for Very Picky Eaters,’ by Josh Schneider (Clarion Books), ‘Bink and Gollie’, by Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee and Tony Fucile (Candlewick Press) and ‘Are You Ready to Play Outside?’ by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books) .
In his lifetime, Dr Seuss proved devoted to his family, friends, social and philanthropic causes , children’s reading and his work. He remained a secret surrealist; his art only revealed to the world after his death.
During his lifetime Dr Seuss received Academy awards for his war documentaries, Emmy awards, the New York Public Library award, the Caldecott Honor award and a Pulitzer Prize for his work for ‘the education and enjoyment of America’s children and parents.’