Many people read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! as allegory. With its oft-repeated mantra of, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” it’s been read as Seuss’s hat tip to post-war Japan (probably partly right). The anti-abortion movement has also embraced it (Seuss threatened to sue).
But its actual meaning, according to Seuss himself?
Remember the plot: Horton finds a clover containing a microscopic society of Whos. Horton protects the clover with his life (and at the expense of his dignity), even as countless baddies — who don’t believe the Whos exist — threaten to steal the clover and destroy it.
As the bad guys move in, Horton implores with the Mayor of Who-ville to encourage his citizens to shout as loudly as loud as they can:
“‘Don’t give up! I believe in you all! A person’s a person, no matter how small! And you very small persons will not have to die If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!'”
The Mayor frantically appeals to his people to raise their voices in what he calls their “darkest hour”:
“‘The time for all Whos who have blood that is red To come to the aid of their country!’ he said. ‘We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!’”
But despite their best efforts, their shouting isn’t quite enough to be heard . . . until the smallest of Whos adds just *one more voice* to the crowd, shouting YOPP!
“And that Yopp,” writes Seuss,
“. . . That one small, extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover Their voices were heard!”
That one voice was enough to make a difference, and saved Who-ville. Without it, no one would’ve heard the Whos, and the story would have had a *very* different ending.
As Seuss said later, “’A person’s a person no matter how small,’ . . . And of course when the little boy stands up and yells ‘Yopp!’ and saves the whole place, that’s my statement about voting—everyone counts.”
If you’re a fan of John Steinbeck, or just love great biography, trust me on this: you’re gonna wanna pick up William Souder’s Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, which arrives in bookstores on October 13. It’s the first biography of the great American writer in . . . well, a long time. It’s getting great reviews — like this one from TheWashington Post — and typical of everything Souder writes, it’s deeply researched, thoughtfully contextual, and beautifully written. In short, I loved it, and I’m pretty sure you will, too.
It probably goes without saying that I’m a fan of both Souder and Steinbeck–and that’s why it was such an honor to be asked to be a part of Bill’s hometown book launch –virtually, of course — hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers in Minnesota. I’ll be interviewing Bill Inside the Actor’s Studio-style to talk all about John Steinbeck and Mad at the World, as well as the nuts and bolts of researching and writing literary biography, and anything else we can think of.
If there’s a bright side to the bizarre new normal that’s sent us all to our laptops for remote interaction, it’s that events like this–or any number of wonderful presentations from, say, the Museum of the Moving Image, or even the Mads from MST3K–have become much more widely available to the public. Before, you had to be there; now, you can be there from anywhere.
So wherever your anywhere may be, I hope you’ll join us.
Sixty years ago this week — on August 12, 1960 — Dr. Seuss published what would become his biggest-selling book of all time. Written as the result of a $50 bet between Seuss and his friend and publisher at Random House, Bennett Cerf, the book, by some estimates, has sold north of 200 million copies.*
The book? Green Eggs and Ham.
When I discuss Becoming Dr. Seuss with audiences, Seuss fans tell me they have warm memories of this one; it’s the book that taught them how to read, or it’s the first book they received as a gift — or, as grown-ups, it’s a book they can still quote and recite word-for-word. And it is a great book–but it’s an important one, too, both in the Seuss library and in the overall oeuvre of children’s literature. There’s a lot going on between its colorful orange boards, the result of sweat, inspiration, and no small amount of luck. But to truly appreciate how smart, and how important Green Eggs and Ham is, we need to go back a few years before its 1960 publication to get some background and some context.
Let’s start, then, by checking in with this May 1954 issue of LIFE magazine (that’s comedic actress Kaye Ballard on the cover, by the way, who was burning up Broadway in the musical The Golden Apple and would later make an appearance on The Muppet Show) which features an article by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist John Hersey titled, “Why Do Students Bog Down on the First ‘R’?” The cover text teases the article as “Why Can’t My Child Read?” but the gist is the same: namely, Hersey was discouraged by the low rates of childhood literacy in the United States, and placed the blame for children’s lack of interest in reading squarely on the shoulders of the ponderous Dick and Jane standard reading primers on which several generations of children had been raised.
The real problem, as Hersey saw it, was that Dick and Jane were terrible. The text — with its now-easily lampooned, “Look, Jane, look. See the ball?” syntax — was bad enough, but Hersey thought the artwork was even worse–“insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children,” he railed. No one, he concluded, was interested in reading about Dick and Jane and their lives of quiet desperation. At the very least, suggested Hersey, couldn’t they get Dr. Seuss to illustrate the otherwise turgid text?
They never would get Dr. Seuss to illustrate Dick and Jane; instead, Seuss was approached by William Spaulding, an editor of children’s books at Random House rival Houghton Mifflin, who had read Hersey’s article and begged Dr. Seuss to “write me a story that first graders can’t put down.”
But there was a catch. Putting aside all their other problems, Dick and Jane were at least living their dull lives inside an actual reading primer, operating under a strict educator-approved vocabulary list of about 300 unique words at the first grade reading level. For his book, then, Dr. Seuss would have to play by those same rules, using only the words on the sanctioned reading list. Seuss told Spaulding he’d take the list home and “play with it.”
He played with it for nearly a year. It was, he said later, an “impossible and ridiculous task…I was forbidden to use any words beyond the list. I almost threw the job up.” Eventually, he decided to read through the list one last time, vowing that “if I find two words that rhyme and make sense to me, that’s the title.” Unfortunately, tall and ball were a bust.
Cat and hat, however, were not.
After another year of work, Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat in the Spring of 1957.** For Cat, Seuss had used 236 unique words from the word list. (His total word count, with repeated words, is about 1,600.) It was Seuss’ first real blockbuster of a book — the one that permitted him to finally devote himself full-time to writing and drawing books for children. But more importantly, Cat in the Hat is a bestseller with a pedagogy; with its reliance on the officially-sanctioned word list, it’s a book teachers approved of, one parents loved, and one kids actually wanted to read. In 1957, that was a game changer.
Inspired by the huge success of the Cat, Random House created a new imprint called Beginner Books, aimed squarely at beginning readers and which continued to lean on the educator-approved word list. Dr. Seuss was brought in as the imprint’s president and editor–a seat from which he would not only recruit and work with other writers and artists on children’s books (one of the most popular of which was P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go!) but would also regularly produce his own books under the new logo, featuring the Cat himself.
Among the first books Dr. Seuss produced for the Beginner Books imprint was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, completed in 1959. One Fish was an experiment for Seuss, as he was deliberately using an even more restrictive word list of short words, and placing the accompanying drawings as close to the text as he possibly could, like so:
It would be the prototype for a new line of books Seuss was already informally calling “Beginner Beginner Books,” aimed at very early readers with limited vocabularies. Soon, there would be a new imprint at Random House, overseen by Seuss, and formally designated with the moniker Bright & Early Books. The Bright & Early Books relied on an approved vocabulary list of only 182 simple words—a little more than half as large as the already restrictive list adhered to by Beginner Books.
Still with me? In 1959, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf approached Dr. Seuss and gleefully pointed out that the new Bright & Early imprint relied on a tight list of 182 words. Then he laid down a playful and very specific challenge: could Dr. Seuss write a book using only 50 of those words?
Cerf bet Dr. Seuss $50 that he couldn’t.
Seuss, who who had agonized and struggled with a broader and less restrictive word list as he worked on The Cat in the Hat, nevertheless rose to the occasion. But it’s probably no coincidence that the resulting book was all about convincing someone to do something they didn’t really want to do.
Green Eggs and Ham would be its own kind of misery, requiring Seuss to create complicated charts, checklists, and multiple word counts as he struggled to keep track of the words he was using. He also imposed on himself a requirement to stick with one-syllable words, though he would make an exception for “anywhere,” which was made up of two short words that young readers would know.
Rhyming, too, could be tough with a fifty word restriction. “The agony is terrific at times, and the attribution is horrible,” he said. “If you’re doing it in quatrains and get to the end of four lines and can’t make it work, then it’s like unraveling a sock. You take some of your best stuff and throw it away.”
Dr. Seuss delivered Green Eggs and Ham to Cerf at Random House in 1960. He was glad to be done with it, and somewhat nervous about how it would be received.
We all know how it turned out. “The good doctor has scored another triumph,” exclaimed the New York Times, while one reviewer wrote presciently of Green Eggs and Ham: “A vocabulary of only fifty words, but they will long be remembered.”
For the rest of his life, Dr. Seuss would find himself at book signings and dinners in his honor where he would be served plates filled with green eggs and ham. “Deplorable stuff,” he said later, “The worst was on a yacht in six-foot seas.”
Generations of readers would look for hidden meanings and metaphors in its text—but for Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham was only ever about one thing: “Cerf bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t write a book using only 50 words,” he said later. “I did it to show I could.”
Oh, and Seuss also said later that Bennett Cerf never paid him his fifty dollars.
Regardless, Happy 60th Birthday to Green Eggs and Ham. Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am (and Dr. Seuss!)
* Publishers can be persnickety about releasing sales figures on the record. Total sales for Green Eggs are reported as anywhere from 8 million to 15 million to 200 million.
* * In a trade-off deal, Random House–Dr. Seuss’s normal publisher–permitted Houghton Mifflin to publish the textbook version of Cat in the Hat for schools, while Random House retained the trade rights. As it turned out, few schools bought the textbook version. Random House would make a mint off the Cat; Houghton — where the idea had originated in the first place! — not so much. Random House would eventually acquire the textbook rights back from its rival, and promptly shelve them, preferring to issue only the trade edition.
For me, the toughest part of writing anything is always the opening lines or opening paragraphs. They’re hugely important; do it wrong, you might lose the interest of a reader who will never come back.
Endings? I’m good there. I almost always know where I’m going. Usually when I start any chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what the final “scene” will be, and sometimes even the last line. But that first step to getting there? Ugh. I stare at the page forever. Usually, in fact, I write the opening pages last.
The opening paragraphs of Becoming Dr. Seuss, however, actually came about relatively early in the process, when I was still thinking about how to frame the narrative. In fact, they were born in an airport bar in September 2017 as I was coming back from one of my research trips to Dr. Seuss’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. While in Springfield, several locals had laughed as they told me how disappointed tourists were when they pointed their cars toward Mulberry Street, expecting to find the Seuss household preserved there as a relic, much like a visit to Monticello, only to discover he’d actually lived on Fairfield Street, several blocks away.
Sitting at the bar, I unfolded a little map of Springfield I’d printed out, and looked at the locations of Fairfield and Mulberry Street and nearly said aloud to my beer, “I need a map of imaginary locations.”
Not the most brilliant of observations, but it was enough of an aha moment that I pulled out a black notebook and pen and started handwriting an opening paragraph wrapped around that idea:
It’s not entirely formed, but it there’s enough to serve as what I call a “guiding vocal”–so that when I sat down to write the opening paragraphs months later, I at least had a good idea of where I wanted to go. Here’s what those opening paragraphs ultimately looked like:
It’s not exactly the same, but you can see the original idea is still there, along with a bit of the language.
Oh, and I should note, too, that I don’t handwrite notes or drafts very much–and looking at it, you can probably see why: it’s a complete mess. I usually write the first draft and then edit right in the Word document I’m using. But there are times when you get sufficiently inspired and need to start noodling around with whatever you’ve got on hand in an airport bar.
Posted onJune 28, 2020|Comments Off on “Constant Wonder” and Dr. Seuss
Last week, I had the pleasure of discussing Dr. Seuss with Marcus Smith on his “Constant Wonder” radio show on BYU Radio. It was one of the more interesting interviews I’ve participated in, thanks to some really good and fun questions from Marcus, as we covered issues like Ted Geisel’s German upbringing and how that affected his work; his growth as an artist; why the Pulitzer Prize meant so much to him; and whether Dr. Seuss cheats at rhyme.
It was all part of a longer consideration of the poetry of William Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss — and if you missed it, not to worry. You can listen to it–or at least my part of it–here.
Posted onMay 23, 2020|Comments Off on Becoming Dr. Seuss in the NYT
Becoming Dr. Seuss arrives in stores in paperback on Tuesday, May 26, and I was thrilled to see it get a shout-out in the highly-coveted “Paperback Row” section of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. You can see it in the image below, just beneath the list of hardcover bestsellers (and I know the graphic can be hard to read, so you can read it online here).
If you’d like a signed copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss delivered right to your door, you can order one — or signed copies of any of my other books — from the fine folks at Bookworks by clicking here. And we both thank you.
Posted onMay 9, 2020|Comments Off on Happy Birthday Kermit! (And Sam! And Lisa!)
May 9 is the birthday of Kermit the Frog — a date that was chosen mainly because it was the date that Sam & Friends debuted on WRC-TV in Washington, DC (Kermit, was there, though he wasn’t yet a frog, and was relegated mostly to supporting cast member). So, happy 65th to Sam and Friends–and to Kermit.
But in the happiest of coincidences, May 9 is also the actual birthday of Jim Henson’s oldest child, Lisa Henson, who turns 60 today. So the happiest of birthdays to Lisa as well.
Posted onApril 23, 2020|Comments Off on Take a (Virtual) Walk with Me Through the Jim Henson Exhibition
Having the City of Albuqerque, the State of New Mexico, and pretty much the entire planet on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the traveling Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited—currently in residence here at the Albuquerque Museum—would be pretty much impossible to see for the remaining weeks and months of its time here in the Duke City. Fortunately, the Museum is making a virtual narrative tour available to view online—and they asked a certain local biographer to serve as your host and tour guide.
A bit of a peek behind the scenes: I was absolutely thrilled to be asked by the Museum to lend a hand with the virtual tour. With everything still on lockdown, I spent about an hour one afternoon making a quick walk through the exhibit with Denise Crouse, the museum’s communications manager, to get a good handle on the featured pieces, and to figure out where to stand for each segment. We were also curious whether the sound could be turned off—there are countless videos playing in the exhibit, which meant I couldn’t stand in certain places without sound ‘bleeding in’ from video screens around the room. (Fortunately, on the day the cameras rolled, all audio tracks were muted.)
On the day of filming, the cameraman showed up masked so he could mic me, then—keeping a responsible 6 to 8 feet apart at all times—we shot these segments on the fly, using no notes—and, with one exception, doing it all in one take (the one exception was the segment on television and Sam & Friends, which I had talked through MUCH too rapidly the first time). The goal was to get it done as quickly and as well as we could, then get out—and we definitely did that, finishing everything up in about 75 minutes.
Despite a few ‘uhs’ and some garbled phrases (‘Sesame Street’ came out particularly messy at one point), I’m happy with the final result—and truly proud to have been asked to do it.
Posted onApril 4, 2020|Comments Off on Cabin Fever? Catch Me Talking Jim Henson with Tough Pigs
Stuck inside and looking for a break from your latest binge watch? The fine folks at Tough Pigs have got you covered with their new twice-a-week series “Cabin Fever,” where they interview folks from all over the Jim Henson/Muppet world. I was pretty thrilled to be asked to serve as one of their first guests — so here I am, with Joe and Ryan from Tough Pigs, coming to you live from my office in New Mexico. (Don’t be too impressed with my attire–I had on shorts with it…)