Seuss on Wry
…with lots of relish.
At 81, with umpteen books in print, a Pulitzer prize, and more than a pinch of Grinch about him, the doctor is still in.
By David Sheff
Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, is the biggest selling author of all time, with more than 200 million books in print. The late Bennett Cerf, his editor and publisher at Random House, one declared, “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.” Ellen Goodman of the Detroit Free Press once succinctly described Geisel’s seismic effect on the world of young readers: “Ten years ago [in 1957], Dr. Seuss took 200 words, rhymed them, and turned out The Cat in the Hat, a little volume of absurdity that worked like a karate chop on the weary little worlds of Dick, Jane, and Spot.” In 1983, after a dozen Caldecotts, Peabodys, and other awards, Dr. Seuss was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. The notation lauds Seuss’s contribution “over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
More than any list of awards and accolades, however, the greatest testament to Geisel’s incredible contribution is the fact that some four generations of kids and former kids feel a warm glow when they think of his best books, and read them to their kids. Only a Grinch could fail to respond to classic Dr. Seuss’s lines such as these.
“I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam I am.”
“A person’s a person no matter how small.”
“That’s what the cat said. Then he fell on his head.”
And: “From there to here and here to there, funny things are everywhere….”
In our quest to discover what makes kids laugh, one answer emerged that was uncontested: Dr. Seuss. We decided to track down the Massachusetts-born author at home in southern California, to find the man behind the menagerie.
The pink stucco house set on the highest hill of hilly La Jolla was obviously the good doctor’s home; outside was parked a white Cadillac with license plates that read “GRINCH.” When the door opened, Ted Geisel appeared, reaching out a long, bony hand for a quick shake. Like some Seussian invention, he is immediately captivating. With dark eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses, a sharp nose, long silver hair, and a neatly trimmed Vandyke, he is a cross between a Sneech, the Cat in the Hat, and unmistakably, the Grinch. And, in the manner of certain characters born on his drafting table, his welcome is delivered with a bemused, mischievous sparkle filled with tantalizing implications.
Inside, down a twisty curvy hall, is a Dr. Seuss gallery, with, for instance, a painting from Geisel’s religious period: a cat in flowing vestments titled, “The Archbishop Katz in his Cathedral.” And a cat in a gondola – from his Venetian period, of course—which is called “O Sole Meow.” In the living room, the erstwhile adman and army intelligence officer propped himself up in the corner of a pillowy crouch by a wall-to-wall picture window and grunter disapprovingly when his wife, Audrey, came over and opened to blinds to let in more sunshine and a view of the vast Pacific.
On the coffee table in front of him were some of the hundreds of fan letters that pour in weekly from around the world. When asked about them, he grimaced. “Random House mercifully intercepts most and sends out a form letter on Cat in the Hat stationary.” Still, Geisel, now in his eighties, can’t entirely escape his considerable celebrity, and will begrudgingly give an autograph when recognized on the street. To avoid that sort of sighting, however, he likes to spend his vacations in Las Vegas. “Nobody would look for a children’s book author there,” he said with a wink. Then he cleared his throat loudly. “So what do you want to know?”
Parenting QA Seuss:
Parenting: As a parent, I’m a fan—because yours are among the very few children’s books that I don’t mind reading again and again and again. Where does the magic come from?
Seuss: Someone asked a very famous golfer what he did to be able to drive 300 yards and he began thinking about it and thinking about it and he never was able to hit the ball the same way. I really don’t know the answer. It’s the verse to a great extent. The absurdity, perhaps? And the fun. Also, my books don’t insult kids’ intelligence. Ninety percent of the children’s books published do.
Parenting: Why do most people insult kids’ intelligence and you don’t?
Seuss: Maybe it’s because I’m on their level. When I dropped out of Oxford I decided to be a child, so it’s not some condescending adult writing for these little odd creatures. That’s where all the carriers about fluffy little bunnies come from. Terrible stuff. Insulting.
Parenting: What do kids want from a book?
Seuss: The same things we want: To laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted. The funny thing is that the people who are the worst offenders when it comes to condescending attitudes toward children are the people who work closely with kids—teachers, for instance. God, they talk down to kids. I avoid that because I don’t necessarily write for kids. I write for myself. I have to be kept interested, kept entertained, or I can’t do it. Why bother?
Parenting: You’ve received all kinds of accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize. Yet some people have suggested that all the fuss is unwarranted; that you’re just writing kids’ books with easy sing-song rhyming.
Seuss: That’s the trick, isn’t it? Making it look so easy. But of course that’s the hard part, creating the impression you knocked something off in a weekend when it may have taken months.
Parenting: Have any of your books popped up like that—over a weekend?
Seuss: Most have taken nine or so months. The Grinch wrote itself very fast up until the last page, the last page took two and a half months. I tried hundred of endings before I found the right one.
Parenting: Can you describe the process by which you create a book?
Seuss: I start with an idea that usually has a little to do with the way tings end up. I draw the pictures and they begging to tell the story. I stick them up on the wall and work with them like a puzzle. When I get characters on the wall, they get into conflicts with each other. My first drafts are obscene. If I can’t think of a proper word, I say “the son of a bitch” or something. “The bastard did this…” I clean it up afterwards. I think the echo of that somehow remains, though. Ninety percent of what I come up with gets discarded.
Parenting: Do the pictures always come first?
Seuss: It can happen either way and more often words and drawings come simultaneously. Anything can spark an idea. I remember I was drawing a picture of an elephant, just doodling, and when I moved the piece of paper, I saw that it had braced onto another drawing of a tree. So there was this elephant sitting up in a tree. Of course, I had to figure out what it was doing there. I thought about it and realized it was obvious: The elephant was up there sitting on an egg. That’s where Horton Hatched the Egg came from.
Parenting: Horton and the cat and the fish from The Cat in the Hat are regulars in your books. There are other recurring characters—like the two kids in The Cat in the Hat. Is this your repertory company?
Seuss: Frankly, these characters do tend to return no matter how I try to get rid of them. And those are the only kids I can draw. It’s my limitation.
Parenting: Some of your books were written more than 30 years ago, but they’re not dated. Why do they still sell?
Seuss: I really don’t know. Some, like Bartholomew Cubbins, fall into the genre of literary fairy tales, which is an art form that no longer exists. If I wrote those today and took them to editors, they’d throw me out. But they still sell. Who knows why? Others are timeless because some things about us don’t change. But what do I know?
Parenting: But kids have changed dramatically in the last 20 years…
Seuss: Yes, primarily because of television. You can’t tell them stories about men on the moon anymore because that’s old hat. But they’re still kids. They still want to be challenged, made to laugh, entertained.
Parenting: Do you spend time with kids?
Seuss: As little as possible. It’s dangerous for a children’s book author to try things out on kids. If they don’t like you as a person, they won’t like what you read them even if it’s the greatest stuff in the world. If they do like you, they’ll love it. You don’t get an honest answer.
Parenting: Do you have any children?
Seuss: No, my wife Audrey has two, but I don’t have my own. Then again, I have 200 million kids. That’s enough.
Parenting: Do you like kids?
Seuss: I feel the same about kids as I do about adults: Some are delightful, some are dreadful. Most writers of kids’ books will tell you all children are wonderful, but they’re not.
Parenting: Do you think about the kids who will be reading your books?
Seuss: Generally, I never think about the audience, except on Beginner Books, when I go back to the fourth draft and simplify. I did think of the audience, though, when I got started writing The Butter Battle Book is really about nuclear confrontation, and it’s your first book without a happy ending. At the end, both sides have the Boomeroo—the nuclear bomb—and the little boy asks, “Who’s going to drop it? Will you…”Or will they…?” and the book ends ominously. “Be patient,” said Grandpa.
“We’ll see. We will see.”
Seuss: We will see. Casper Weinberger will have to do something quick to make the story have a happy ending. In that book, I considered myself a reporter and that’s the way the situation is.
Parenting: In your other “message” books, you end optimistically like The Lorax, the little boy is given a seed—the hope of saving the trees. Horton is finally able to convince the skeptics that the Whos exist. And Yertle the turtle is dethroned.
Seuss: Right. Yertle was Hitler or Mussolini. Originally, Yertle had a moustache, but I took it off. I thought it was gilding the lily a little bit. That book ends when Yertle the turtle king is dethrone because Mack, the turtle holding up the throne from the bottom, burps. Just to show you how things have changed, my publisher, Random House, had a directors meeting to decide if I should be allowed to use the word “burp.” The top man, good old sophisticated Bennett Cerf, felt it might be offensive to readers. Burp? Can you imagine?
Parenting: Do you have any second thoughts about tackling the nuclear theme in a book for children?
Seuss: I thought it might be too much, but it evidently isn’t. The Butter Battle Book led the juvenile best-seller lists. Given a certain amount of vocabulary, I think kids can comprehend anything. As far as the ending goes, I think they can argue about it. In schools, teachers are using the book as a way to discuss the whole nuclear issue. In some cases, the kids have said, “I think the Yooks should knock the bejesus out of the Zooks.” You never know, do you? One thing I learned doing this book is that there are as many nuts who believe in peace as there are who believe in war. This thing got me mixed up with the damnedest groups of people. People have gone out and sat on railroad tracks and said, “Run over me,” clutching my book. In one town, they want to have a bunch of public readings and charge admissions and use money to bail out kids who won’t sign up for the draft. It’s tied me in with the draft dodgers, and I’m not anti-draft.
Parenting: What reaction to the book would you like to see?
Seuss: I want people to think.
Parenting: By the way, which side do you butter your bread on?
Seuss: I edge.
Parenting: Have you worried about scaring kids with Butter Battle?
Seuss: I’ve never worried about that. Were you ever scared by a book? I was scared by The Hounds of Baskervilles, but I’m glad I read it. If you worry about scaring people, you throw out the best parts of Mark Twain, of Shakespeare…
Parenting: What was the international reaction to The Butter Battle Book?
Seuss: We did well in Britain; they certainly were sensitive to the issue. Japan was the first non-English-speaking country to pick it up and Israel was the second. Other countries followed—I’m surprised by how many, but of course I’m quite pleased.
Parenting: You have spent a great deal of time in Japan, haven’t you? You wrote a book on the country.
Seuss: Japan is a spectacular place. Tokyo is a mess now, but the country is lovely. I went there as a Life correspondent ten years after the end of the war. I had suggested an article on what the kids in Japan were up to. With the help of a Japanese educator, we assigned the kids at practically every school in Japan to draw a picture of what they would like to be when they grew up, to fund out what they were thinking. The results were fantastic. Only one kid drew himself in military costume. Many kids wanted to be aviators, to go to Mars, or to be scientists and work on the rice shortages… that sort of things. Most had visions of themselves working for a better world.
Parenting: What became of the article?
Seuss: Life messed it up horribly. The kids who were reactionary happened to draw more interesting pictures, so the magazine used them, but gave a false picture. They destroyed half the stuff I had written, and even spelled my name wrong. Henry Luce was always anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese. They actually changed a caption to say that the Japanese are conceited and were claiming to have invented baseball. I couldn’t go to Japan for ten years after that. However, I conceived the idea for Horton Hears a Who from my experiences there.
Parenting: What inspired it specifically?
Seuss: Well, Japan was just emerging, the people were voting for the first time, running their own lives—and the theme was obvious: “A person’s a person no matter how small,” though I don’t know how I ended up using elephants. And of course when the little boy stands up and yells “Yop!” and saves the whole place, that’s my statement about voting—everyone counts. It’s all left over from my war experience, when I was making propaganda and indoctrination films. One of them was to encourage soldiers to vote.
Parenting: You had some unusual experiences in the military. Something to do with the atom bomb?
Seuss: I was in charge of this propaganda unit. One of the things we had to do was write a newsletter every week. The war with Germany had ended but many soldiers had to stay overseas for occupation duty. They were disillusioned because they thought they would be able to go home. So the Pentagon wanted us to impress upon the troops how important the occupation was. We had to convince them that though the war was over, there was still a threat.
Parenting: Cold war tactics…
Seuss: Exactly. We were thinking about how to do it when some crazy guy in my outfit found this article in the New York Times. It said that in a glass of water there is enough energy to blow up a town the size of Pittsburgh. This inspired me. We sat down and invented an atom bomb based on the concept. We wrote a story called “The Weapons of the Next War” to scare the troops, and make them understand how important it was for them to stay in Germany or wherever they had been assigned. Remember, the bomb hadn’t been dropped on Japan at this time. No one knew it was being developed. So when I sent a copy of the story to the Pentagon—I got a call from an officer who, I found out afterwards, had three three-star generals killing beside him—“Major, where did you get this information?” he asked.
I said, “You mean, the atomic bo—“ and he stopped me: “Don’t use that word!” I thought he was nuts, but I replied “We found it in the New York Times.” There was a buried conversation at the end and he came back on the line and said, “Major, burn your evidence.” It was the craziest thing I ever heard.
Parenting: So what happened:
Seuss: I got an armed squad of soldiers and we marched out into the quadrangle. I carried a waste basket with the New York Times, my article, and the drawings in it. I placed it in the middle of the quadrangle, lit it, and as it burned we all gave the Boy Scouts salute. I went back and called the Pentagon and reported, “Mission accomplished, sir….”
Parenting: Do you use propagandistic skills in your books?
Seuss: of course. However, most of my books don’t carry heavy morals. The morals sneak in, as they do in all drama. Every story’s got to have a winner, so I happen to make the good guys win.
Parenting: Ought children’s books be propaganda?
Seuss: Of course.
Parenting: Would you feel that way if the children’s writer didn’t share you politics?
Seuss: You mean if it was some right-wing son of a gun grinding his ax? Now that’s real propaganda! In fact, it’s probably a pretty dirty thing I’m doing. When I do it, though, I don’t consider it propaganda; I consider it making sense.
Parenting: Some people feel that Dr. Seuss should not be political. How do you respond?
Seuss: Well, three or four review of The Butter Battle Book said I should stick to my writing cats in the hats and such. I was greatly criticized with The Lorax. If those books had failed, I would have been greatly upset about it. As it is, I’m very pleased and proud.
Parenting: Several of your books have been made into television films—Horton Hatches the Egg, The Lorax… How do you like them?
Seuss: I have to go a bit easy here; I have friends in the industry. I’ve been very involved in all the films, but it has become more and more difficult to control, because more and more of the work is done in Korea and Japan. Another thing is that there just isn’t the talent there used to be. Walt [Disney] used to have schools where they trained animators. Now there’s so much cheap Saturday morning stuff that the standards of quality have slipped quite a bit.
Parenting: Do you have adequate budgets?
Seuss: The cost has become so terrific that by the time you have spent what the network has given you, there’s nothing left to pay for any changes. Sometimes you’re lucky. I’m happy about the first one I did—The Grinch—which has been playing on television every Christmas for 18 years. We had Boris Karloff as narrator. He took the script and studied it for a week as if it were Shakespeare. He figured out all the nuances. That’s one of the reasons why it works so well. The Lorax is actually my favorite film. It seems to have a life of its own. The United Nations is distributing it in all kinds of languages.
Parenting: The Lorax is very popular with environmentalists, isn’t it?
Seuss: The reason that I did that story is because I had read so many dull things on conservation of our land, forests, and other resources. Everything was either full of statistics and dull or preachy and dull. I got mad at the namby-pamby stuff I was reading. I had to make it amusing as well, which of course is the hard part. It’s one of the few things I ever set out to do that was straight propaganda, because the propaganda out there was so bad. It was also the hardest thing I have ever done, because the temptation was to fall into the same traps the others had fallen into. The state of California plays it every summer around campfires in Yosemite.
Parenting: You are notorious for concocting your own words. Who told you you could do that?
Seuss: Hmmm. Don’t know. Lots of people told me I couldn’t.
Parenting: When Did you start inventing like that?
Seuss: In high school, and before. I would draw weird animals and call them different names. A misspent youth…
Parenting: Were those versions of the animals in your books?
Seuss: They were ancestors, I suppose.
Parenting: And how are those words created?
Seuss: That’s the easy part. I can look at an animal and know what it is.
Parenting: Do you ever invent a word in order to finish a verse?
Seuss: I squeak through with that occasionally. It’s a cheering device, though I don’t use it too often.
Parenting: In On Beyond Zebra you make up letters?
Seuss: Well, who said that there were only 26 letters in the alphabet?
Parenting: In your alphabet book there is no “A is for apple” or “Z is for zebra” like most learning books for kids. You have “Z” standing for “Zizzer, zazzer, zuzz…”
Seuss: That book was the only one I ever researched. Beginner Books, the publisher, was a young company, and I worried how teachers would react to my alphabet scheme. So we sent it to 26 teachers for comments. They all wrote back and said, “This is the best alphabet book we have ever seen, but there is one letter the children will hate…” And, of course, each one mentioned a different letter. That’s the last time I asked teachers for their opinion.
Parenting: The Cat in the Hat is probably your most famous book, and your first huge seller. How did you come with the idea?
Seuss: That was done as a textbook originally for Houghton Mifflin. They gave me a list of words to use. There was nothing I could write about with the words they had given me. I read the word like once more looking for two words that rhymed to use for the title of the book. “Cat” rhymed with “hat.” A fine example of a genius at work…The Cat in the Hat was a hard experience. No one had ever written a reader like that before. Early readers always turned out to be like Dick and Jane, so I didn’t quite know how to proceed on it.
Parenting: Did you grow up on Dick and Jane?
Seuss: Dick and Jane captured the American school system after my time. They set down rules that had to be followed. Recently I found my first-grade reader and it included, believe it or not, a couple of poems by Robert Louir Stevenson. Someone decided that was too difficult, although we all learned to read. So Dick and Jane and the word list came in.
Parenting: So The Cat in the Hat began as an early reader?
Seuss: Yes. But it wasn’t received that well as a reader. When Bennett Cerf released it for Random House, though, it was an overnight smash.
Parenting: Any idea why?
Seuss: I think it was beginning to dawn on families that their kids were learning to talk like ducks and were spelling worse.
Parenting: When did you decide to write children’s books as a full-time occupation?
Seuss: When the bumper crop of children born on the G.I. Bill of Rights came along. Up until 1950 you couldn’t make a living as a children’s book writer. G.I.s had all these kids and they began to buy kids books like mad—overnight. The other thing that happened was there was a revolution in offset lithography. The printing got better and better. For a fair price they could put out beautiful books. Color was no longer prohibitively expensive, and I no longer had to earn my living as a cartoonist and copywriter on the advertising business.
Parenting: You originally chose your pen name, you said, to save your real name for your “serious” novel. Is that book still coming?
Seuss: I wrote it, but it was no good. So I boiled it down to a short story. And then I boiled it down to a short short story. And finally a found a gag in it, and I sold it as a cartoon for $20.
Parenting: Your name is one of the most familiar in America, but are you recognized on the streets?
Seuss: Sometimes. The Pulitzer Prize and being 80 years old have a lot to do with it. When you get to be 80, people will recognize you on the streets, too.
Parenting: Do you enjoy the attention?
Seuss: I’d just as soon not have it. I find it often comes from someone who wants something.
Parenting: Looking back, what was the easiest book for you to write?
Seuss: The easiest was Marvin K. Mooney. There’s a funny story about that one. I went to a party at Art Buchwald’s home about the time it came out, in 1972. After the party, he sent me a copy of his bestseller, I Never Danced at the White House, with a note in it. “To Geisel, who would be incapable of writing a thing with great civic meaning” or some nice Buchwald sentence. I wanted to send a book back, so I took a copy of Marvin K. Mooney and, every time it said Marvin K. Mooney, I wrote in Richard M. Nixon. It read, “Richard M. Nixon will you please go now, Richard M. Nixon I don’t care how….” And it ends, “I said go and go I meant…The time had come. So…Richard went.” I sent that to Art and he published it in his column, which ran in hundreds of newspapers. The next thing I know, Nixon quits. I was in Australia at a press conference and I told this story as a joke, but they took it seriously. There were headlines, “THE MAN WHO GOT RID OF NIXON.” Reporters wanted my autograph because I had gotten rid of Nixon.
Parenting: When you wrote it, you weren’t thinking of anything political, were you?
Seuss: No! I was thinking about this nasty kid who lived down the block!
Parenting: Are the people we meet in your books caricatures of people you know?
Seuss: I suppose everything is a parody of something. But some of them are more consciously parodies than others.
Parenting: Who’s the Grinch? And the Onceler?
Seuss: You’re going to get me sued! But there are a few blowhards I know who appear in the books. They recognize themselves.
Parenting: Why did you settle in La Jolla?
Seuss: I moved down here in 1948 after my stint in Hollywood. I didn’t like Los Angeles at all—I hate any big city. I had visited a classmate at Dartmouth from here who invited me out in 1927. It was beautiful, but it was full of ancient people—well, not as many people then, but the people who were here were mostly old. I told him, “I’m going to spend my life figuring out how I can live here before I get as old as these people are.” I did that.
Parenting: Your most recent book, You’re Only Old Once, is for old people—“obsolete children,” as you call them. Why the departure?
Seuss: I had a heart attack and needed a couple of cancer operations. I was learning about the indignities of old people who suffer when they are put in the hospital. I began to think of all the old people checking in and out of hospitals and thought it might help them to laugh at it a little more.
Parenting: How are you feeling these days?
Seuss: Very well, thank you. Although I don’t play much water polo. I’m all cured. Which is good, since after the not-quite-flattering way I portrayed hospitals and clinics in the book, I’d better not have to check in again. They’d provably love to get their hands on me….
Parenting: What’s been the response to You’re Only Old Once?
Seuss: I’ve been surprised that both adults and children seem to like it. They have women saying they know what it’s like in the hospital and they don’t like it either. The strange thing about You’re Only Old Once is that it’s been on the New York Times nonfiction list since it came out, but on the West Coast it’s been on the fiction list.
Parenting: Where does it belong?
Seuss: I’ll take either list as long as it’s on a list.
Parenting: The book is more of a personal account than your other books. Was it difficult to write?
Seuss: It was. I didn’t know if it was possible to make people laugh with this subject. If you’re not careful you get into gallows humor. And there was another problem: I couldn’t think of how to end it. Of course, there was a logical end, but I was afraid of it, so I winged it, and wrote, “You’re in pretty good shape for the shape you are in.” And I guess I am.