When I was a young child, my mother worked as the Head Librarian at a small branch library. The building was an old church and the upper levels were “off limits” because of structural issues. Each summer, my Mom would create a crazy theme for the summer reading program. When we were able, each of my siblings and I would volunteer time to let the very small kids read their weekly selections to us … well, at least a few pages. And of course, not a half hour went by without one young patron presenting us with a selection from the esteemed Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss was the popular pen name for American writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel. Born on March 2, 1904 … 107 years ago today … in Springfield, Massachusetts to German immigrant parents, Geisel created a signature style in children’s literature that has touched the lives and hearts of hundreds of millions of young readers. His style was bold and imaginative, and his unique use of rhyme and illustrative panache were both exciting and comforting to people of all ages.
Geisel attended Dartmouth College in the early 1920s where he was editor-in-chief of a humor magazine, the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. He was caught drinking gin with some buddies … violating national Prohibition laws … and forced to quit his editorial job. But Geisel had too much to say and continued to have his work secretly published in the magazine under the simple name “Seuss.” After graduation, he entered a doctoral program at Oxford. Although he never completed the advanced degree, much of his work was simply signed “Dr. Seuss.”
After college, Geisel brought his unique humor and world view to a variety of tasks and careers. He worked as an illustrator for advertising campaigns for such businesses as Standard Oil. He produced more than 400 scathing political cartoons for PM, a New York City newspaper. And he submitted countless freelance humorous articles, cartoon strips, and illustrations to notable publications like Life, Vanity Fair, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Geisel also worked with and for the U.S. Army during WWII. In 1942, he helped produce posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board that supported the U.S. war effort. In 1943, he joined the Army and was made commander of the animation department of the first-ever Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Geisel worked on several short instructional films and documentary pieces. One such piece won the 1947 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Geisel’s wartime work would earn another Oscar in 1950.
But the Theo Geisel … Dr. Seuss … we know and love was all about children’s books. His first was And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street! … one of my all-time favorites … but probably a few more popular titles include The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Hop on Pop, Horton Hears a Who!, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Over his lifetime, Geisel authored 44 Dr. Seuss classics.
And “classic” was what these books were, defined by several unique style points. Although his early work was accomplished with pencils or watercolors, Dr. Seuss books are illustrated using the stark contrast of pen and ink. Most of Geisel’s illustrations were black, white, and perhaps two or three bold colors. Characters … whether people, animals, or imaginary combinations … tended to be rounded and “droopy.” This same soft styling was likewise applied to buildings, flowers, food, and machinery. Geisel also loved architecture and often drew elaborate buildings and backdrops that defied standard geometry. Two other trademark Dr. Seuss techniques were characters with long, interlocking fingers and the use of accent lines to create motion or to illustrate the use of the senses of sight and smell and hearing.
And, of course, there was the rhyming. In 1937, while on an ocean voyage from Europe to the U.S., Geisel was captivated by the rhythm of the ship's engines. While at sea, he wrote several poems and utilized the poetic devices of anapestic tetrameter (four rhythmic units, each composed of two weak beats followed by a strong beat) and trochaic tetrameter (four units per line, but one strong beat followed by one weak beat) to create a style of prose that draws the reader into the text … literally pulling you through the story in an amazingly exciting way.
But one classic Geisel twist you don’t hear much about was his subtle placement of his political views into his children’s books. A liberal Democrat, Geisel was morally opposed and very outspoken about the threat of fascism. He also felt that the dangers of communism were somewhat overblown and used as a scare tactic on the American people. Over the decades, Geisel managed to subtly share his feelings on environmentalism (The Lorax), racial equality (The Sneetches), the dangers of materialism and consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and even present an allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan (Horton Hears a Who!).
On September 24, 1991, Theodor Geisel succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 87. But this man … our wacky, lovable Dr. Seuss … was honored in a myriad of ways. Libraries to this day prominently feature his works. To date, Geisel’s “Dr. Seuss” books have sold nearly 225 million copies and have been translated into 15 languages.
His books have additionally spawned a number of adapted-for-television specials that originally aired between the mid ‘60s and early ‘80s. Who amongst us hasn’t repeatedly watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” around the holidays? Move over Charlie Brown … my DVR is set for the Grinch! And of course. we have three feature films that retell the classic exploits of the Grinch, The Cat in the Hat, and Horton to modern audiences.
For his critical work, Geisel was awarded two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1995, the library on the University of California at San Diego campus was renamed Geisel Library in honor of his contributions to the library and for his lifetime devotion to improving literacy. In 1997, an exhibit of Geisel’s other works … sculptures, prints, and paintings that he did for pure pleasure and which he called his “secret art” … was launched as The Art of Dr. Seuss Project. This exhibit toured major museums and galleries across the globe, allowing Geisel to be acknowledged along with the other great artists of history. In 2000, “Seussical the Musical” … a retrospective blend of characters and plotlines … opened on Broadway and ran for 198 performances before spending several years touring both the U.S. and Europe. In 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden opened in Geisel’s birthplace of Springfield, Mass. And in March of 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Dr. Seuss postage stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Geisel’s birth.
Today … March 2, 2011 … Theodor Seuss Geisel was honored as First Lady Michelle Obama read from his works at the Library of Congress as part of National Read Across America Day. This initiative was created by the National Education Association whose governing board specifically selected Geisel’s birthday as its national reading campaign showpiece.
POINT OF RANT: Your magic will never be matched, Dr. Seuss!