Tag 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.

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.