Category Archives: Dr. Seuss

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.

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Project Lorax: An Update

It’s been several months now since I unveiled the subject of my current project, Dr. Seuss. Since that time, papers have been signed and we’ve made things officially official (the formal announcement should be arriving any day now), and I’m very excited about spending the next year not only with my subject, but with my editor, John Parsley, who I worked with on George Lucas.  It’s doubly thrilling, in fact, because I was able to follow him from the offices of the fine folks at Little, Brown (where we worked on George Lucas) over to Dutton, where John now serves as Editor-in-Chief.  It’s a good place to be; Dr. Seuss was a staple at Random House (which now owns Dutton) for nearly his entire career (it’s where he also established Beginner Books), so it seems only fitting to be working on his biography under the larger roof of Penguin Random House. I’m delighted to be there.

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My colorful bookshelf.

I’ve started my research–but first thing’s first: I had to stock up my library shelves with All Things Seuss. Mostly, I ordered books in large bunches from Amazon and other booksellers, which really threw off the way Amazon generates its recommendations. “BASED ON YOUR ORDER HISTORY,” it tells me, “YOU MAY LIKE GO, DOG, GO!” Which, I suppose, is certainly true.

But not everything Seuss wrote or drew is in print and easily available; I had to scour eBay, for instance, for The Seven Lady Godivas (a book Seuss called his “greatest failure . . . it was all full of naked women, and I can’t draw convincing naked women”). eBay was also my go-to to procure copies of two small humor books Seuss illustrated (but didn’t write) back in the early 1930s called Boners (by Those Who Pulled Them!)and its sequel titled (wait for it . . . ), More Boners. I know, I know . . . the jokes just write themselves.

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Get your mind outta the gutter. I know it’s hard. (That’s what she said.)

My next task was to start gathering and reading as many existing books on Seuss as I could find . . . and really, there aren’t many (some terrific analyses of his work, but only one real bio, dating to 1995).  Beyond that, one of my first big dives was into newspaper and magazines archives — mainly just New York TimesWashington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as some selected magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life — for contemporary accounts, interviews, reviews, cartoons . . . pretty much anything I can find.  Even in a limited scope like this, archival research is one of my favorite parts of the project.

Then, as I always do — because I’m terribly analog — I print everything out, three-hole punch it, and file it (for the most part) chronologically in binders.  Naturally, new binders get added as things proceed, and I have to change some of them out with larger versions as I stuff them full.  But this is how I start developing one of my most crucial documents: a timeline of the entire life that I can refer to as I write, and make sure everything is in order.

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The first binders. Titles change and binders expand as the research proceeds, but — for me, at least — it’s a good way to keep everything organized.

At the moment, I’m deep into research on the years from 1922, when Seuss* entered Dartmouth, to the end of World War II, when he returned to the United States determined to write books that mattered.

When I’m done here, I’ll work my way backwards to his childhood, which will be the perfect excuse to head for Springfield, Massachusetts, where I can walk the streets Seuss walked as a boy, scour the local archives, and visit the newly-opened Dr. Seuss Museum.

* Yeah, I know his real name is Ted Geisel. For the moment, I’m simply referring to him by his pen name.

Your Mountain Is Waiting…So Get on Your Way!

Who do those crinkling, smiling eyes belong to? Why, none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel — the good Dr. Seuss, whose birthday just happens to be today.

seuss-with-figuresI’m SO thrilled to be working on the life of yet another wonderful, creative, inspiring iconic subject — and I’m just as happy, too, that I’ll be working with the same terrific team at Little, Brown that helped put the George Lucas bio in your hands.