Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

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

IMG_6981

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.

Nearly There

This weekend, I’m making the final edits on Becoming Dr. Seuss, and then it’s off to production on Tuesday. That means I’m making all the changes suggested by and discussed with my editor, and well as the copyedits, fact checking, and legal read. I also have to go through every endnote to make sure they’re accurate, as well as structured correctly (meaning they’re all in the proper citation format that used to make us all crazy in high school).

I also do quite a bit of spot-checking as I go, ensuring I’ve quoted things correctly–and that involves a lot of back-and-forthing between books and articles. There’s a lot of heavy detail work that goes into biography (and history and other non-fiction) — and it always seems to take much more time I ever think it will.

It also means making a HUGE mess in the office, with piles on the desk, and on the floor.

Mess on the desk….
….and mess on the floor.

The production folks at Dutton are waiting to get their hands on this thing, so they can start doing all the work necessary to have Becoming Dr. Seuss in your hands by May. They’ve already done some really fun work in both their title page design and font selection. Take a peek:

If you’re interested in pre-ordering, there are brand new links to your favorite booksellers right here. And thanks for your interest! I appreciate you.

I’ve also been asked if there will be any appearances and signings. I don’t have any information yet, but as soon as I do, you’ll see it here. And here’s hoping I’ll have the chance to see a lot of you lovely people beginning in May.

First Draft Complete. Level Up.

So, this happened last week.

IMG_6758

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?

IMG_5299

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

IMG_5443

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.

IMG_5346

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 . . .

IMG_5350

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

IMG_5349

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.

IMG_5390

Nuts and Bolts

I spent the better part of this past week in New York City, doing research on Dr. Seuss at the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room at Columbia University.  The Butler Library at Columbia holds the papers of Random House — as well as those of its co-founder, Bennett Cerf — which has published every Dr. Seuss book since 1939. Before that, Dr, Seuss was published by Vanguard, a company Random House then-president Bob Bernstein made a point of acquiring in 1988, largely to ensure Random House would own all of Dr. Seuss’s books. How do I know that? This past week I also interviewed Bob Bernstein–still spry at 94-years-old, and full of lots of interesting stories, some of which had to do with Dr. Seuss, some of which didn’t.  The man has lived a pretty incredible life (his Wikipedia entry barely scratches the surface).

Archival research is one of the foundations of biography–and for some of us, it’s the really fun part as well.  These are the nuts and bolts that help biographers do what we like to do: it’s just you, a laptop, pencil and paper (ink pens are usually prohibited in an archive), and one archival box after another.

IMG_4880

The nuts and bolts of biography.

How’d I get here?

*RECORD SCRATCH*

Let’s start here, with the rather imposing-looking Butler Library.  It sits on the south side of the commons at Columbia University, a hop-skip-and-jump from the 116th Street subway stop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

IMG_4973 (1)

The Butler Library at Columbia University.

Once inside, the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room sits on the 6th floor, behind glass doors that make the place feel somewhat hermetically sealed.  Outside the reading room, you’ll be required to check your backpack, briefcase, jacket . . . anything with pockets or hidey-holes where documents might be smuggled out (think I’m being dramatic? The National Archives begs to differ).

IMG_4971

The entrance to the Rare Book and Manuscript reading room at Butler Library. You’ll be offloading most of your belongings into lockers before entering (use the table at the right to unpack).

I had e-mailed the archives in advance with my request for the archival boxes I wanted to look through — they were all stored off-site, and needed to brought to the reading room for me to use, which is why researchers should always check in advance on the mechanics of the research at any archive they might be visiting.  Archivists are your friend, no doubt — heck, they want to help people use their resources — and they’re also some of the unsung heroes of history and biography, pointing researchers in the right direction when we’ve stumbled into archival dead ends, or even directing us to other archives that might be of use. The archivist I had corresponded with, Karla Nielsen, was helpful and enthusiastic, patiently walking me through nearly every step of the front-end of the process, including locating and then navigating the library’s lengthy “Finding Aid” for the collection. Because of her help, I had no doubt that everything I’d asked for would be there waiting for me.

Once you’re ready to sit down and do your research, it’s a little like entering a fishbowl as you take your seat inside the main reading area — another glassed-in room, where you’ll present your credentials to the librarian, who will then have your archival boxes brought to you one- or two-at-a-time. I sat at one of the wooden tables about three rows back, directly behind several other researchers who were just as intently going through their archival boxes.

IMG_4943

Inside the fishbowl.

Sometimes, as you’re on your way to your own relevant documents, you come across other files you might be itching to explore, given more time.  Often, the unopened files can be as tantalizing as those you opened or looked through.  For example, the file for Dr. Seuss’s early book The Seven Lady Godivas was filed alphabetically under this real name (Theodor “Ted” Geisel), which put it directly in front of the file for Nobelist Andre Gide.  Pretty neat.  And no, I didn’t open it.  THERE WAS NO TIME.

IMG_4945

Geisel . . . Gide.

Ted sigI went through my boxes slowly, taking notes both on my laptop and in my notebook.  But one of the great benefits of the iPhone age is that many archives will permit you to photograph your documents with a digital camera, just so long as the flash is off.  Once I get back home, I download and print out every document and file it in black binders for reference — but the cellphone photo policy is a real boon to biographers and historians (and anyone who thrives on documentation, really) as it permits us to have copies of much-needed documents — and not just our own written description of them — on hand at any time,  (I’m sure they won’t begrudge me reproducing just this signature from a little snippet of one memo, part of an ongoing string of letters between Ted and Random House president Bob Bernstein about a French translation of The Cat in the Hat Dictionary.)

Anyway, this is the “laws and sausage” side of producing a biography.  And there’s still a long way to go before it’s  even close to ready to land in your hands.

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.

21558830_1903653879889257_1119887575632869871_n

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.

IMG_2996

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.

IMG_4488

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.