You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.~Dr. Seuss
Many of us think we know Dr. Seuss, whose children’s books sold 600 million copies and were translated into more than 20 languages by the time of his death in 1991.
We have read and re-read his classics like Cat in the Hat and watched his films like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. For many of us, Dr. Seuss’s books were the first we read on our own. For other children, like my son who struggled with reading, Dr. Seuss was a breath of fresh air. His books created imaginary worlds with characters and rhymes that were quirky and captivating and made him laugh. Most importantly, they made reading fun. Over time, the rhymes were imprinted in my son’s mind like secret codes that unlocked the mystery of written language.
That in itself is a tremendous achievement. But in fact, Dr. Seuss’s work went far beyond that. As I researched his work and his life, I was astounded to learn that his far-ranging talents and accomplishments extended to graphic and fine art, political satire, children’s literacy, and environmental issues.
Why fit in when you were born to stand out?~Dr. Seuss
Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, young Theodore (Ted) Seuss Geisel was greatly influenced by his parents–Henrietta Seuss and Theodore Robert whose family roots were in Bavaria. The family thrived in Massachusetts and ran prosperous distillery until Prohibition.
After closing the business and enduring unemployment, Ted’s father became the superintendent for the Springfield Park System. Young Ted often visited the Springfield Zoo with his father and brought along his sketchpad. It’s easy to see how his early sketches of animals sparked his imagination and were transformed in his later illustrations. He also credits his mother for his interest in rhymes, since she often chanted to Ted and his sister Marnie when they had trouble falling asleep.
Education and Early Career
After graduating from Springfield High School, Ted studied at Dartmouth, majoring in literature. While at Dartmouth, he submitted cartoons to the college’s humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. When Ted and several friends were caught drinking in a dorm, a direct violation of Prohibition rules, Ted was ordered by the dean to stop working for the magazine. The wily Ted found a loophole and submitted cartoons with various pseudonyms, such as Seuss, L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti ’25, and T. Seuss. With the encouragement of a professor of rhetoric, W. Benfield Pressey, Ted also started writing more seriously. After graduating from Dartmouth, he enrolled at Oxford College in London, intending to earn a PhD in English literature, but he changed his plans after meeting Helen Palmer, who looked at his notebooks filled with doodles and sketches and encouraged him to pursue a career in drawing.
After Ted and Helen married, they moved to New York City, where Ted worked freelance as an illustrator, selling his work to Life Magazine and Vanity Fair. A cartoon published in July, 1927 in The Saturday Evening Post, help him land a staff position at Judge, a New York weekly. He worked in the advertising department for the next 15 years, creating ads for Holly Sugar, NBC, Ford, and General Electric among others. But his ad for Flit, a common insecticide, became nationally famous. “Quick Henry, the Flit” became a part of the American vernacular as a standard line to use in emergencies.
World War II
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.~Dr. Seuss
The politically-aware Ted Geisel observed what was happening overseas as fascism spread across Europe. He started drawing political cartoons to bring to public awareness the growing menace of dictators Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Emperor Tojo. During the war, he became a weekly contributor to PM, a newspaper financed by the Chicago millionaire Marshall Field. More than 400 of his cartoons were published there, as well as those of other political satirists, such as Crockett Johnson, creator of the comic strip Barnaby.
When America entered the war, Geisel was already in his mid-30’s, beyond the age of the draft, so he enlisted in Frank Capra’s Signal Corps, creating animated training films and documentaries. He also drew propaganda posters for the Treasury Department and War Production Board.
Children’s Book Author
Adults are obsolete children.~Dr. Seuss
It’s not clear whether Ted started writing children’s books when he learned that he and his wife Helen could not have children. He did however send Christmas cards to friends, signing the names of fictional children, such as Chrysanthemum-Pearl, Wally, Miggles, Boo-Boo, and Thnud.²
Like many writers, the “road” to publication was not easy. His first children’s book was never published since no publisher wanted his ABC book filled with a long-necked whizzleworp and a green-striped cholmondelet. He tried again several years later with a second children’s book– And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which was rejected by dozens of publishers. Ted Geisel described what happened next as a stroke of luck. After the last rejection, he was ready to throw the book away. But as he was walking down Madison Avenue, he ran into a Dartmouth classmate, Mike McClintock, who was just appointed editor of the juvenile department at Vangard Press. Geisel was quoted as saying, “That’s one of the reasons I believe in luck. If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry cleaning business today!”³
Another turning point in his writing career was in 1954 when Life Magazine published an article critical of children’s literacy in the United States. The publishing companies Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked him to write a basic reading book for children using 220 vocabulary words. Geisel’s creation replaced the boring and predictable children’s primer Dick and Jane with a fun-loving cat. His book, The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957, became a “tour de force”–as described by one critic–and thrust Geisel into the limelight of children’s literature. (4)
In response to another challenge by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf who dared him to create a book using only 50 words, Geisel wrote Green Eggs and Ham with the iconic character Sam I Am. By using the philosophy of phonetic learning to teach reading and a cadence (anapestic tetrameter) that was easy for children to understand, Geisel became an influential force in children’s literacy. Using this model, Ted and his wife Helen with Bennett Cerf and his wife Phyllis started Beginner Books at Random House.
Humanitarian, Activist, and Artistic Legacy
A person is a person no matter how small–Dr. Seuss
Reading his books as an adult, I have realized how many of them focused on social and political issues: The Lorax (1971) about the environment and anti-consumerism; The Sneetches (1961) about racial equality; Yertle the Turtle (1958) about the danger of Hitler; Horton Hears a Who (1954) about anti-isolationism and internationalism.(5)
Public recognition and accolades continued throughout Geisel’s lifetime, including 3 Caldecott Awards for his children’s books, an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth, and an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature in 1947 for Design for Death, written by Ted and wife Helen. In 1984 he received a Pulitzer Prize “for his contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.” He is also the only book author to be included in the book 100 People Who Changed the World, published by Life Books in 2010.
Geisel’s artistic output was immense: 44 children’s books, more than 400 political cartoons, and hundreds of advertisements. If that weren’t enough, for over seven decades he worked as a surrealist, creating fine art which is uniquely true to his creative vision.
I know that future generations of children will learn to read with his books and start to love reading because of them. Parents like me, who struggled to unlock the mystery of reading with their children, appreciate the humor and creativity of Dr. Seuss who transformed reading from a chore to something fun. His humor, creative vision, and artistic style are gifts to all of us. They are unique and enduring.
To learn more about Dr. Seuss and his work, click on the links below:
This is the thirteenth in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society. To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Goodall, Alice Waters, Swami Vivekananda, The Man in Black, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Dr. Jean Raffa, Astrid Lindgren, Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Cleveland Amory, click on the embedded links. Suggest new nominees in the comments section below.
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