Category Archives: Dr. Seuss

Making of an Audiobook (ah-dee-oh-book)

I can finally answer the question Will Becoming Dr. Seuss be available on audiobook? with an emphatic yes. The team at Random House are hard at work to bring the book to audible life for you by May 7. And no, as the author, I do NOT read the book. Trust me, you don’t want that. Instead, that job goes to the hyper-talented Mike Chamberlain, whose voice I love for this book.

What I do get to do as the author, however, is sort through an enormous spreadsheet filled with the names of people, places, animals, and things, and write out–as best I can–phonetic pronunciations for each that can then be referenced by Mike as he’s recording. For the most part, it’s the names of real people (such as Mike Frith, Roy McKie, or Walter Retan) whose names we want to pronounce correctly (or, at least, make a good faith effort to do so) or places with foreign or just-plain-unusual names like Maastricht, Bastogne, or Agawam, Massachusetts. I send a lot of e-mails verifying the pronunciation of names, and I also rely on the audiobook producer to verify some of the foreign words (while I suffered through one semester of German in college, I wouldn’t presume to try to definitively pronounce Schutzenverein).

However, as you can imagine, when it comes to a subject like Dr. Seuss, the book is also filled with lots of made-up names and distinctly Seussian words that every reader might pronounce differently when reading it aloud. A word like Lorax is one thing; but even something like his dear Truffula Trees might be pronounced differently from reader to reader. I tend to say it as “TRUFF-uh-lah.” Others I know know say “truff-YEW-luh.”

What to do then? In this case, I referred to the 1972 animated special–produced during Dr. Seuss’ lifetime, with his involvement–where the pronunciation is . . . TRUFF-yew-luh. We were both close.

Still, in lots of other cases, it’s not so clear. What do you do, for example, with words like:

  • Dingleblader
  • Heumkia
  • Bvorlyjk
  • Mnpf
  • Grimalkin, Drouberhannus, Knalbner, and Fepp

These haven’t exactly entered the vernacular in the same way that, say, Sneetches or Grinch has. In these instances . . . well, I think any pronunciation you hear in your head when you read it is probably right. But for the audiobook, we had to make our best guess.

So if you’re one of the devoted audiobook readers of Becoming Dr. Seuss and one of the Seussian words doesn’t sound quite right to you . . . take comfort in knowing that our pronunciation is right. And so is yours.

PW Says BDS is A-OK

Reviews for Becoming Dr. Seuss are continuing to roll in; the latest comes from the Old Gray Lady of book reviewers, Publishers Weekly.

I’ve never done particularly well in Publishers Weekly. Not that they’ve torpedoed me necessarily, but the best I usually get is a shruggish “eh.” And that’s why I’m delighted with their review for Becoming Dr. Seuss, which is perhaps the most effusive they’ve ever been about anything I’ve written:

Biographer Jones (George Lucas) delivers a comprehensive and thoughtful look at famed children’s author Theodor Geisel (1904–1991) . . . Jones does not ignore problems in Geisel’s early work, including some racial stereotypes. He also gives full credit to Geisel’s first wife, Helen, as a guiding hand for some of Geisel’s best-loved books. While acknowledging Geisel’s flaws and debts to others, Jones convincingly shows him as a transformative figure in children’s publishing, both as author and cofounder of the Beginner Books imprint. Fans of Dr. Seuss will find much to love in this candid but admiring portrait.

The full review is here. And boy, believe me: I appreciate it.

A Star-Bellied Kirkus

One of the first reviews for Becoming Dr. Seuss is in, and it’s from the always-respected and often-feared Kirkus Reviews, the book reviewer with the Seussian-sounding name. And I’m absolutely thrilled they gave Becoming Dr. Seuss one of their highly-coveted starred reviews.

Here’s a bit of that review, which appears in its entirety in the March 15 issue of Kirkus Reviews:

“A rich, anecdotal biography of one of the bestselling authors in publishing history. Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), aka Dr. Seuss, created more than 60 books, classified mostly as readers for children. However, as Jones (George Lucas: A Life, 2016, etc.) points out in this engaging, page-turning work of Seuss scholarship, Geisel was writing and illustrating for children and adults simultaneously . . . Used to being perceived as a funny guy, Geisel evolved into a serious thinker about how to develop books that would encourage children to read while also enjoying the learning process. Jones is particularly masterful in this vein, showing how Geisel and other key collaborators collectively revolutionized reading education, with Dr. Seuss always reserving the final say . . . Though the narrative is strictly chronological, it never bogs down because the character sketches and publishing anecdotes are so well-rendered, and Jones is especially skillful with foreshadowing. Although sometimes exasperating to work with because of his exacting standards, Geisel comes across as a mostly kind, well-intentioned person. Whether readers are familiar with Dr. Seuss books or not, they will find this biography absorbing and fascinating.”

Becoming Dr. Seuss comes your way on May 7. If you’re so inclined, you can pre-order from any of your favorite booksellers. And I thank you.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

I was born one merry morn
Under the sign of Capricorn.
(I wasn’t really, but it rhymes.)

— Dr. Seuss, Notes on his abandoned Non-Autobiography

Happy 115th birthday to Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Seuss Geisel on this date in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904. (That makes him officially a Pisces.) I love photos of writers and artists at their desks, so here are a few of Ted Geisel doing his thing at his desk, and in his office, throughout his lengthy career.

It’s no coincidence that today is also National Read Across America Day. Read something. And when you’re done, create something. Dr. Seuss would want you to.

It’s Nearly a Book

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These arrived on my doorstep yesterday: advance reader copies (ARCs) of Becoming Dr. Seuss.  ARCs are usually sent around to reviewers, but they’re by no means the final version of the book.  (Heck, if you’ve got an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, you’ve got a version of the book with a completely different prologue than what appeared in the final.) While I don’t anticipate any changes in the text of Dr. Seuss as significant as that, the ARC still doesn’t have the photo insert, nor does it yet have the index.  But this gives you a good idea of what the final version will look like; it’s reeeeally close to becoming a real book. The next time I see it, it’ll be a real hardcover.

What They’re Saying About Becoming Dr. Seuss

Becoming Dr. Seuss is very nearly ready to be released in ARC format–that’s publishing lingo for Advance Reader Copy, which is a soft-cover version of the book that gets mailed out to reviewers and others in advance of the book’s actual release date. When the ARCs roll off the press, they’ll also feature some of the first blurbs from a few readers who got an early peek at the book. I’ve had these in pocket for a bit, but they’re now up on the Amazon listing, so I think I can share them here:

“Finally! The solution to the mystery of where Dr. Seuss earned his Ph.D.  Brian Jay Jones also reveals the true identity of Chrysanthemum Pearl; the etymology of the word “nerd”; the political leanings of Horton and Yertle; and the relationship of Krazy Kat to the one in the hat. It comes as no surprise that Theodore Geisel was a born story-teller; prying truth from fact, Jones pins our favorite fabulist nimbly, colorfully, and splendidly to the page.”—Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches

“Readers of Becoming Dr. Seuss may be astonished to learn in this rollicking ride of a biography that Theodor Seuss Geisel—progenitor of the most anarchic animals of all time—was himself a radically bizarre creation, every bit as strange and emotionally uncoordinated as a Snoo or a Sneetch.  Childless, chain-smoking, and cocktail-swilling, bawdy and argumentative, Geisel got his unlikely start promoting Standard Oil’s fly-killing insecticide (his ad campaign featured the immortal tag line “Quick, Henry! The Flit!”); drawing coarse political cartoons (sometimes racist or misogynist); and serving as a World War II understudy to Frank Capra, making films teaching grunts to evade death and mosquitoes.  His epic transformation into one of the most beloved and bestselling children’s writers of all time, winner of Oscars and a Pulitzer, is a poignant, affecting tale of a man who mastered the art of concision through imagination and sheer toil yet could never bring such exactitude to his own life, callously replacing his wife and editor of forty years, a suicide, with her rival.  In Jones’s telling, the Seussian legacy emerges triumphant, elevating the power of children’s literature.  “I no longer write for children,” Geisel said proudly, at the end of his life. “I write for people.” Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Once again, Brian Jay Jones takes us on a beguiling deep dive into the life of one of the leading lights of American popular culture. Written with verve and warmth and a close attention to both the life and the times in which it was lived, Becoming Dr. Seuss brims with charm and humor from beginning to end.”—William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.

“Brian Jay Jones, a terrific researcher and writer, has produced a richly textured and riveting book about one of the most fascinating artists America has ever produced. If you want to understand how genius is formed—and how this particular genius performed his magic—this marvelous book is the place to start.” — Jonathan Eig, author of Ali: A Life

My thanks to each of these brilliant writers not only for their kind words, but also for taking the time to read Becoming Dr. Seuss in the first place. I know how busy they all are.

The Home Stretch

I’m back on the corner of the couch in my office, going through my editor’s notes and copyedits–all of which need to be completed by January 15.  See ya in a week!

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First Draft Complete. Level Up.

So, this happened last week.

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It’s currently in the hands of my crack editor at Dutton, and I look forward to us going through it together.

Now off to clear photos.  Be good to each other.

At Work in the Geisel Library

I’m sitting in the San Diego Airport, waiting for my flight back to Baltimore, which has already been announced as an hour late.  Vacation? Nope. I’ve been in San Diego for the last ten days, doing research on Dr. Seuss, since his archives are held at the Geisel Library (see the connection?) at the University of California at San Diego.

It’s been a good trip. I couldn’t dig into all of the archival files I wanted; apart from sheer time limitations, some of the Seuss-related materials remain tantalizingly restricted, which — while it leaves those of us who love research going Oooooooo, I wonder what’s in there? — isn’t necessarily unusual (at Dartmouth, for example, materials relating to financial transactions or donations were also restricted). But I still got my hands on lots and lots and lots of great stuff, and I’m grateful for the assistance of the library archivists, who willingly lugged in box after box and always cheerfully promised to check on the status of just ONE more! box or folder for me.

I also had the opportunity to talk with one of Ted’s friends, in a home perched high atop Mount Soledad with a stunning view of the Pacific.  Not bad.  San Diego and La Jolla are a pretty nice place to be in January — especially as I’m flying head first into a swirling winter storm back east, which may be one reason why my flight is already delayed.

Here’s a look at the exterior of the Geisel Library.  While Ted didn’t have anything to do with the architectural design of the building, it certainly looks like a library where he’d want to store his papers, doesn’t it?

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Once inside, this is the entrance to the archives, with your way marked by a quote from The Lorax.

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This is the view from inside the fishbowl.  I was the only researcher in the room the entire week–and while photography of materials isn’t permitted, I don’t think they’ll mind a shot of the workspace.  If you look just to the left of the glass door, you’ll see the tops of two rolling carts, each containing archival boxes.  Those are the materials I was working from.

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As I mentioned, I wasn’t permitted to take photos of any of the materials in the collection (policies vary from place to place — I could photograph materials at Columbia and at Dartmouth, for instance).  But UCSD is still very generous about giving the public a look at some of what they’ve got on hand, and keeps a regular display of materials moving through cases just outside the archival doors.  At the moment, there’s an original typewritten manuscript of the text from Green Eggs and Ham on view . . .

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. . . as well as this really gorgeous original art from Horton Hatches The Egg! 

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Just as there was in Springfield, there’s a statue outside the library of Ted with the Cat in the Hat (and for some reason, it looked particularly great in the rain).

IMG_5302 2So long, Geisel Library, and so long San Diego and La Jolla.  You were lovely.

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Project Lorax: The Research Zone

Over the past week, I’ve been on the road doing research on Dr. Seuss, a road trip that took me from Fredericksburg up to Hanover, New Hampshire — where young Theodor (Ted) Geisel attended Dartmouth from 1921 to 1925 — then down the Connecticut River to Springfield, Massachusetts, where the future Dr. Seuss was born and raised.  And yeah, there’s even a real Mulberry Street here, though contrary to rumor, Ted didn’t live on it.

My first stop, then, was Dartmouth, where I hoped to have a peek at the papers of Ted Geisel (Dartmouth class of ’25) held at the Rauner Library, housed in the Webster Building, right on the edge of the historic Dartmouth Green. For two-and-a-half days, I worked with a very helpful (and patient) group of librarians and archivists, who brought me one rolling cart after another loaded up with archival boxes.

Seuss ArchivesSome were full of press clippings — and believe me, Dr. Seuss generated a LOT of press in his lifetime — while others contained correspondence or photos or even his high school and college transcripts. Another contained a much worked-over mock-up of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, with Ted’s careful notes about color use, margin heights, even changes to the copyright page.  There were back issues of Judge magazine, where Ted submitted cartoons back in the late 1920s, pages of art drawn for Dartmouth fundraisers, and a large envelope — think four feet long by two feet wide — containing advertising work and a large black and white drawing of a Seussian Noah’s Ark on white cardboard.

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And of course, I always love to go through correspondence — and the Dartmouth collection didn’t disappoint, with folders full of letters Ted wrote to college friends reporting on trips in Europe, commenting on his mother-in-law, or pitching projects to editors at various magazines. Letters are one of my favorite parts of research, as it’s just you and your subject together, listening as they speak candidly in their own voices, make inside jokes or — in those really wonderful moments — nervously reference projects they’re pitching, wondering if anything will come of them.

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And to think that I saw Mulberry Street.

After wrapping up my time in Hanover, I drove 90 minutes south to Springfield, where Ted was born in 1904. Springfield is rightly very proud of its most famous son (and that’s saying something, as the town actually has quite a few famous sons and daughters), and it shows: all the signage for the Springfield Museums prominently features Seuss characters, and the complex itself centers on a fun sculpture garden featuring Horton, the Lorax, Thidwick, Sam-I-Am, and — sitting in front, with one foot up on a drawing table — Ted himself, being given a coy hat tip by the Cat in the Hat.

IMG_4472I spent several days in the Springfield City Library, rolling one wheel of microfiche after another onto the viewer as I read through issues of the The Springfield Republican and The Springfield Union from the early 1900s. While inconvenient compared to modern online archives, there’s still something wonderful about the old-school experience of working with microfiche, from sorting through the huge drawers of film boxes (you can see them in the background in the photo at left) to that satisfying thwack-thwack-thwack sound the film makes as it rapidly spools back onto the feed reel.  The only real drawback — and this is purely personal — is that staring at the screen for hours on end as the film goes whizzing by in blur always makes me feel slightly seasick. Agh.

From here, I burrowed into the archives in the basement of the History Museum, going through various Geisel/Seuss histories and family trees.  When I was done, I had the happy experience of touring The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, the latest addition to the city’s cluster of permanent museums.

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IMG_4493I also had the pleasure of talking with museum administrators and staff, who helpfully arranged for me to walk through Ted’s childhood home (shown at right), still standing on Fairfield (not Mulberry) Street, and still looking — at least structurally — much as it did when Ted and his family lived there more than a generation ago.

All in all, it was a terrific trip up to Dr. Seuss territory. His legacy is in good hands in Hanover and Springfield, and I so appreciate everyone letting me be a small part of it.