Originally published on March 1, 1998, this piece was assigned by The Christian Science Monitor to honor the birthday of Dr. Seuss. It’s included in my essay collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.
It was the late 1950s, and he put the fun back in reading when he booted Dick and Jane out of my neighborhood. To me, he was (and still is) the wizard of words, the “gandorious” great-uncle of terrific tongue-twisters.
To many adults who have since become parents, he’s a beloved household icon. His rhymes have thrilled more young bookworms than even he could have imagined. And nobody could imagine things quite like Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.
His influence is so awesome, in fact, that March 2 — Geisel’s birthday — is designated “Cat in the Hat Day.” Endorsing the holiday, the National Education Association suggests we celebrate by reading to a child tomorrow evening.
Starting in 1937, when he wrote and illustrated his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Geisel found his niche churning out tales of the weird and the whimsical, populating them with squawking fish and top-hatted cats. Even today, few other children’s authors can tickle a four-year-old funny bone as swiftly as Dr. Seuss. Which is why it’s hard to believe that this creator of nerkles and nerds had no kids of his own. Yet he penned 47 children’s books — and sold more than 100 million copies in more than a dozen languages.
Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a brewer who ran a zoo during Prohibition — a zoo that undoubtedly provided endless fodder for young Geisel’s fantasies. (Geisel, by the way, coined the term “nerd” in If I Ran the Zoo.) In 1925 he graduated from Dartmouth, where he’d drawn cartoons for a humor magazine. While studying literature at Oxford in England, he met Helen Palmer, an American literature student who encouraged him to pursue an art career. For a while he drifted in Paris.
In 1927 he came back to the states to marry Helen Palmer. Though he had planned to write novels, the Depression temporarily derailed his art career, and he resumed writing gags for humor magazines. Though his first attempts to publish had been difficult, by the late 1950s “Dr. Seuss” was producing nearly two children’s books a year. Delighting young baby boomers and their parents, Horton Hears a Who was published in 1954, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957.
After Helen Palmer’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Dimond and acquired two stepdaughters. He died in 1991 at eighty-seven, with his family at his bedside.
“His contribution was making reading fun again,” says Laurie Harris, a Pleasant Ridge parent and series editor of Biography Today for young readers. “The rhythm and warmth of his words stay in a child’s head forever.”
“I like nonsense,” Geisel once said. “It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”
But as every fan discovers, Geisel’s “nonsense” isn’t just for kids. His stories are laced with sophisticated messages and illuminating parables, which is why they’re so much fun to read aloud – with or without children. The Butter Battle Book, for example, tackles the perils of the atomic age. Meanwhile, the uproarious Cat in the Hat gets into big trouble, yet somehow manages to redeem himself and straighten out his messes.
Whether we’re nine or seventy-nine, after all, there are many horrific hills to climb and, yes, incredible kooks to reckon with. — Cindy La Ferle, March 1, 1998
MARCH IS NATIONAL READING MONTH. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO CELEBRATE?