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March 10, 2018

Friday, March 2 was celebrated again this year as National Read Across America Day. Elementary school students in many places dressed up like Dr. Seuss characters for the festivities. Why? Appropriately enough, March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Clare and I still have children’s books in our home – a lot of children’s books. Clare treasures books as much as I do. Children’s books are among her favorites. She has saved books from her childhood and most of the books our five children enjoyed as they were growing up. Now our grandchildren love coming to our house and delving into Miz Clare’s Children’s Library. Clare has even set up her own check-out system so the grandchildren can borrow books and return them after enjoying them for a while.

My job is to keep the books in good repair. I patch the treasured volumes with tape when little hands accidentally tear a much-handled page.

I was at that task not long ago when I realized how many books we have that were written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss.

The Cat in the Hat is regarded as the defining book of Dr. Seuss’ career. The popular book was developed through a joint venture between Houghton Mifflin and Random House. Houghton Mifflin asked Dr. Seuss to write and illustrate a children’s primer using only 225 new-reader vocabulary words. Random House obtained the trade publication rights because Seuss was under contract to them, and Houghton Mifflin kept the school rights. With the release of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss became the America’s best known children’s book author and illustrator.

As I secured the crumbling spine of The Cat in the Hat with strapping tape, I wondered how the beloved Dr. Seuss got his start as a writer of children’s literature. An internet search revealed his fascinating story.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born into a German immigrant family in 1904 on Howard Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Theodor Robert, and his grandfather were brewmasters. His mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, had a great influence on his successful writing career. At bedtime, she often soothed her children to sleep by chanting rhymes remembered from her youth. Theodor credited his mother with his ability to create the rhymes for which he became so famous.

The Geisel family enjoyed a comfortable and prosperous life until the beginning of World War I.  Prohibition presented both financial and social challenges for the German immigrants. The family persevered through the difficult times and again prospered. Theodor and his sister, Marnie, had a happy childhood. Memories from that childhood in Springfield are reflected throughout his work.  In addition to its title, first children’s book by Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, is filled with imagery from his hometown. Even the red motorcycles used by the police department are fashioned after Springfield’s famed Indian Motorcycles.

As a teenager Theodor left Springfield to attend Dartmouth College, where he became editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine. His tenure as editor ended when Theodor and his friends were caught throwing a party, which was against the prohibition laws and school policy. He continued to contribute to the magazine, signing his work Seuss. This is the first record of his use the Seuss pseudonym. It was both Theodor’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

To please his father, who wanted him to pursue an academic career as a college professor, Theodor went on to Oxford University in England after graduation from Dartmouth. However, he lost interest in his academic studies and decided to tour Europe instead. At Oxford he met a classmate, Helen Palmer, who became his good friend, his first wife, and a children’s author and book editor in her own right.

After his return to the United States, Theodor began to develop a career as a cartoonist. The Saturday Evening Post published some of his early pieces. Most of his creative attention was devoted to the advertising campaigns for Standard Oil Company. He held that job for more than fifteen years.

As World War II approached, Theodor’s focus shifted, and he began contributing weekly political cartoons to PM magazine. Too old for the draft, but wanting to contribute to the war effort, Theodor served in the United States Army with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps making training movies. It was here that he became proficient in the art of animation. He developed a series of animated training films featuring a cartoon trainee called Private Snafu, a military term meaning “situation normal all fouled up.”

While Theodor was continuing to contribute to Life, Vanity Fair, Judge, and other magazines, Viking Press offered him a contract to illustrate a collection of children’s quotes.  Although the book was not a commercial success, the illustrations received great reviews, providing Theodor with his first big break into children’s literature.

However, getting a book published that he both wrote and illustrated was much more difficult. After receiving twenty-seven rejections, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was finally accepted for publication by Vanguard Press. After a great deal of persistence on his part, the career of Dr. Seuss in children’s literature had been launched.

After his first wife died in 1967, Theodor married an old friend, Audrey Stone Geisel, who was not only influential in the publication of his later books, but now serves as the president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

Clare and I often have conversations about authors and writing as a career. By any measure, Dr. Seuss was among the most influential. How many children have delighted in the rhyming lines of Green Eggs and Ham?  How many parents have read Fox in Socks until sleep overtakes young and old alike? How many grandparents have held little ones on their knee and sympathized with an elephant who can just barely hear the combined voices of Whoville in Horton Hears a Who? How many families have gathered around the television in December to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

At the time of his death on September 24, 1991, Dr. Seuss had written and illustrated forty-four children’s books. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages. Over 200 million copies have found their way into homes and hearts around the world.

Besides his books, his work has been made into eleven children’s television specials, a Broadway musical, and a feature-length motion picture. Other major motion pictures are on the way. Good news! A recently discovered manuscript is being published by Random House. What Pet Should I Get? Written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, it is due out on July 28, 2015.

Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel, received many honors including two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Each year, National Read across America Day is celebrated on March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss.  The day is intended to encourage all children and youth in every community across the United States to celebrate reading. That may be the very best way to remember Dr. Seuss.

We expect our grandchildren to visit over the weekend. If things run true to form there will be time for reading. Whenever I open a book with a child I think of the words of Dr. Seuss from his book Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Oh, the places you’ll go!

There is fun to be done!

Could I encourage you to read a book to a child? It will do you and the child a world of good. You both will honor Dr. Seuss and all of those who love good books.

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