Tag Archives: Becoming Dr. Seuss

Sixty Years of Green Eggs and Ham

Try it, try it! You will see.

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.

John Hersey

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.

Bennett Cerf

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.

Challenge accepted.

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.

Guiding Vocals

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:

The messy first pass in my notebook.

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.

“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.

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.

The Meticulous Whimsey of Dr. Seuss


“The fact that [Dr. Seuss] took writing so seriously, even before he knew what he was doing, speaks volumes to just how intuitively good he was and how much he valued the reader. His sense of his books was, ‘I don’t do this just for children; I write for people.'”

Yup, that’s me on Dr. Seuss — all this and more in a quick-hit Q&A I did with the folks over at Capital Group (!), where they take books seriously.

You can read the rest of it here. And my thanks to Joe Simmons for the conversation.

Dr. Seuss is Longlisted

Wow. I’m beyond thrilled that Becoming Dr. Seuss was selected for the longlist of 25 nominees for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. I know it sounds like a cliche, but given the caliber of all the great writers on the list, I’m humbled to even be included among them–and I’m grateful to the Carnegie Corporation and the American Library Association for the honor of being there.