Posted onMarch 6, 2023|Comments Off on Talking Seuss with American Stories
To mark Dr. Seuss’s 119th birthday, I sat down with the kind folks — in this case Madisyn — at the Our American Stories podcast to trace the arc of Seuss’s life and work. If you’re so inclined, here’s about 30 minutes of me enthusing about Seuss — and Frank Capra and Chuck Jones and Bennett Cerf and so many others — and his astounding work and work ethic. I also seem to be doing a spot on Reuben Kincaid impression.
Posted onMarch 14, 2021|Comments Off on Out of Print . . . and Back Again
Say, did you know that in his lifetime, two of Dr. Seuss’s books were taken out of print?
Yup. One was his famous “naked lady book,” the other was a songbook.
The Seven Lady Godivas (1939) was Seuss’s third book, and his debut title with Random House. It wasn’t a good start. The book ended up being quickly remaindered, and was eventually sold only through cigar shops. Written when Seuss was 35 years old, it would be brought back into print–“by multitudinous demand!”–in 1987, when Seuss was 83.
Meanwhile, The Cat in the Hat Songbook (1967) was filled with Seuss-written songs, scored for guitar and piano by Eugene Poddany, who also scored How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Seuss was really proud of the book–he loved writing songs–but parents didn’t want a book full of songs to sing; they wanted funny books to read. The book bombed on release, and Random House let it quietly die on the vine (it got better, and is back in print and widely available today).
All week long, I turned down requests from radio, TV, and print reporters who wanted to talk “for just a minute” about the DSE decision—and I did so because Seuss and race is a really complicated matter that requires more than 90 seconds (or, in the case of Twitter discussions, 280 characters). Add the heated terms “cancel culture”, “woke mob”, and the general disinformation I often see about Seuss (“He beat his wife!” “He was a Nazi!”) to the conversation, and the air quickly becomes too toxic or heated to have a genuine discussion.
Nearly a week later, however, I’m still seeing so much flat-out misinformation being flung about that I thought it was time to blow the whistle and step in to try to provide a little context on Dr. Seuss, race, and racial imagery, as well as set straight what DSE has and hasn’t done.
First, then: the six books that DSE is taking out of circulation are:
And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street
If I Ran the Zoo
On Beyond Zebra!
Scrambled Eggs Super!
The Cat’s Quizzer
That’s it. Six books. No How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on the list. No Cat in the Hat on the list. No Green Eggs and Ham on the list. Dr. Seuss books aren’t cancelled. There are still more than 50 Dr. Seuss books out there, and if you’re like me — at least pre-writing the bio — you probably didn’t recognize any of these, beyond, perhaps, Mulberry Street.
Now, the obvious first question is: Am I okay with this?
My somewhat complicated answer is, “Er, well . . . I get it.” I never like it when we police books and reading, whether it’s Huckleberry Finn or Tales from the Crypt. I think such material provides us with a learning opportunity — and in Seuss’s case, there are still some interesting things going on in these books. McElligot’s Pool, for example, is one of the very few Seuss books with pages printed in full color; meanwhile, If I Ran the Zoo! is the place you’ll find the word “nerd” making its debut in print for the first time anywhere in American English.
But let’s be clear here about what’s really going on: the six books in question aren’t being banned; rather, this is an acknowledgement by the copyright holder that a particular work no longer reflects its own brand, message, or thinking. This happens all the time, whether it’s Warner removing problematic Looney Tunes cartoons from circulation (the so-called “Censored 11”), Disney quietly shelving Song of the South,or even Disney+ adding a disclaimer to the beginning of episodes of The Muppet Show containing material that raises modern eyebrows. This is curation, not cancellation—and DSE, which engages in the difficult discussion of, and self-reflection on, Seuss and race almost annually on his birthday (which is, uncoincidentally, National Read Across America Day), finally decided enough was enough.
It’s at this point now that that the conversation tends to move along to: “But why just those six books? Wasn’t Dr. Seuss racist AF anyway?”
Often, those who posit this will point to an academic study where researchers examined all of Dr. Seuss’s work and catalogued “hundreds” of instances in which Seuss could be deemed offensive or insensitive. Fair enough; in the 1920s, while working for joke magazines like Judge—the 1920s equivalent of, say, MAD—and well before he ever thought of writing children’s books, Seuss could be too quick with a casual racist or misogynistic joke. And some of his advertising work of the 1930s could be truly, head-shakingly gross.
I’d caution you, however, that this study included not just those humor mags and ads — and his work in his college magazine at Dartmouth, which was filled with lechers and drunks — but also all of his WWII-era editorial cartoons and propaganda/training materials he produced while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. This WWII-era work contains lots of problematic portrayals of residents of Axis nations, especially the Japanese — but so did nearly every American editorial cartoon and every inch of U.S.-produced propaganda of the era (Seuss’s portrayal, however, never devolves into depicting the Japanese as monkeys, as many cartoonists of the era did).
The cited research, then, is fair, but skewed–you have to know what “all Seuss work” really means in order to arrive at such a staggeringly-high number. So, let’s stick with just the Dr. Seuss books here; in scouring the 50+ books Dr. Seuss produced for children—including those written under pseudonyms like Theo. LeSieg* — six were determined to contain problematic material.
And the material *is* problematic. Just below, you’ll see a few examples — but there are more, in both pictures and text, scattered throughout the six books in question. Given these examples alone, I think DSE’s decision to pull the plug on these books was a tough call, but the right one. Because hoo boy, Seuss is clearly being racially insensitive.
But—and here’s where it gets sticky—I don’t believe that Seuss’s use of racially-insensitive imagery means the man himself is a card-carrying racist. Mostly, he’s pictographically lazy; Seuss too easily lapses into the stereotypes and tropes of his era, especially when it comes to portraying exotic people or cultures, whether African, Inuit, or Asian. (Of the six books being removed, five were published between 1937 and 1955—an era when Charlie Chan was still being portrayed by white actors in pancake makeup and overly-slanted eyes, speaking in pidgin English to the “numbah wan sahn.”)
Keeping that partly in mind, then, it’s likely that not only did Seuss not intend to offend, but he likely didn’t even realize that his art was offensive. To Seuss, these sorts of depictions were an easy way of conveying that people were “exotic,” in the same way that he tended to draw millionaires in striped trousers and monocles, and every politician in a top hat. It was, in a sense, illustrative cosplay—creatively lazy, certainly, and definitely insensitive, but mostly just graphic shorthand. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that Seuss’s white privilege is unquestionably showing. (I know mileage varies on this, with some insisting that despite intent or lack thereof, “race is a feature, not a bug.” I’ll continue to disagree—but in this case, I’ll also refer you to my biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss, for more details.)
Later in life, Seuss came to publicly acknowledge that some of his earlier work was indeed problematic, essentially saying, “I thought it was funny then; today, I’m not so sure.” And when it came to the Japanese, he became something of a Japanophile; Horton Hears a Who!—with its recurring message that “A person’s a person, no matter how small”— is Seuss’s love letter and apology to the Japanese people, dedicated to his guide and interpreter, “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan,” who took him on a tour of the country after the war. He would also tinker with the depiction of a “Chinese boy” in Mulberry Street in an effort to make the character look like less of a stereotype, but really to no avail (Seuss said at the time, somewhat unhelpfully, “now he looks like an Irishman.” Oof.).
Dr. Seuss came a long way over the arc of his life, advancing beyond the cringe-inducing work of the 1920s and 1930s, the problematic propaganda of the 1940s, and the insensitive, easy stereotypes of the early 1950s, to become—starting in 1957, with the publication of The Cat in the Hat – the progressive advocate for children and reading that we now think of when we hear the name Dr. Seuss. That artist who lapsed into racially insensitive stereotypes? He’s also the one who later created The Sneetches, a book that openly embraced tolerance and diversity; sent a fascist terrapin tumbling into the mud in Yertle the Turtle; gave the fledgling environmental movement its first true spokesman with The Lorax; and warned of the Cold War’s inherent danger of Mutually-Assured Destruction in The Butter Battle Book. Dr. Seuss was imperfect, but he also did his best to constantly do better, and do good.
Thanks for reading.
* spell it backwards, and you’ll find Seuss’s real last name.
In 1974, Dr. Seuss sent a marked-up copy of his book Marvin K. Mooney, Will You please Go Now! to humorist Art Buchwald, with RICHARD M. NIXON written over every mention of the name Marvin K. Mooney. (Buchwald, Seuss said later, had gotten Seuss’s dander up by remarking that he was”incapable of writing anything political.”)
After receiving the book, Buchwald LOVED it — and on July 30, 1974, ran the revised text in his syndicated newspaper column, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the country, like the clipping below from the Las Cruces (NM) Sun-News.
Nine days later, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.
“We sure got him, didn’t we?” Seuss wrote enthusiastically to Buchwald. “We should have collaborated sooner.”
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.”
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.
“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.