Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
The same might be said for having fun. Children giggle, laugh, and enjoy a special brand of silliness that adults, believing we need to be seen as “proper,” are often hesitant to display. (Adult silliness tends to take other forms that too often involve a few remaining strands of hair desperately combed over growing bald spots, and then paraded around in ridiculously expensive sports cars, but we won’t go there right now…)
Anyway, one man who never forgot how to be an artist or how to have fun was Theodore (“Ted”) Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Employing his own brand of rhyming fun, he taught generations of children to enjoy reading. In honor of his birthday on March 2nd, many schools will celebrate “Love of Reading.”
Born in 1904, Ted Geisel grew up in Springfield Massachusetts. His memories of the people and places of his childhood hometown can be found throughout his work. In particular, his first book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, is filled with Springfield imagery.
Geisel attended Dartmouth College, where he became editor-in-chief of Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine, at least until he and his friends had too much fun at a drinking party that went against school policy and his reign as editor came to an abrupt end. He continued to contribute to the magazine, however, signing the work as “Seuss,” the first recorded use of his pseudonym.
Geisel went on to study at Oxford University in England, where he met Helen Palmer, who became his wife as well as a children’s author and book editor.
After he returned to the US, Geisel worked in advertising, creating campaigns for Standard Oil for 15 years, while he also pursued a career as a cartoonist. With WWII on the horizon, Geisel’s focus shifted and he began contributing weekly political cartoons to a liberal publication, PM Magazine.
Wanting to contribute to the war effort, but too old for the draft, Geisel served in the Signal Corps, making training movies. There he was introduced to the art of animation.
Although still contributing to a variety of publications, his first big break came when Viking Press offered him an opportunity to illustrate a collection of children’s sayings called Boners. The book was not a commercial success, but the illustrations received rave reviews. Buoyed from this success, he attempted to publish And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. However, the book was rejected 27 times before finally being published by Vanguard Press after a friend from college who worked there interceded on his behalf.
His career received another boost when, in Rudolf Flesch’s book and John Hershey’s article, both titled “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” the authors suggested that the work of artists like Geisel and Walt Disney would be more appealing to children than what was currently in most “antiseptic” primers.
The defining book of Geisel’s career, The Cat in the Hat was the result of a challenge from Houghton Mifflin to write a children’s primer using only 225 “new reader” words. With the success of The Cat in the Hat, Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss became the definite children’s book author and illustrator.
Although Geisel has been described as quiet and almost shy until he got to know a person better, he enjoyed a number of close friendships, including his publisher Bennett Cerf and columnist Art Buchwald.
In 1948, he and his wife purchased an old observation tower in La Jolla, CA. “The Tower,” as it became known, housed the studio where the author often put in long days.
But there were plenty of fun times, too. Geisel and his wife hosted frequent dinner parties, which sometimes took on a life of their own. Geisel had a penchant for wearing funny hats. Dinner guests were expected to wear their own funniest headgear or run the risk of being assigned a hat from Geisel’s personal collection.
After the death of his first wife in 1967, Giesel married an old friend, Audrey Stone Geisel, who saw her role as that of caretaker and chief supporter. She continued that role as the head of Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
At the time of his death in 1991, Dr. Seuss had written and illustrated 44 children’s books. His award-winning works have been the source for multiple television specials, a Broadway musical, and several major motion pictures. In addition to The Cat in the Hat, some of his most popular titles include Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and (my personal favorite, which makes every bit as good a gift for a 22-year-old college graduate just starting out in the world as for a young child) Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Dr. Seuss himself had little patience for overly serious adults: “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them,” he said.
Many of us are wearing a lot of hats these days, but why not take a cue from Dr. Seuss (and his alter ego the Cat in the Hat) and make sure at least one of them is silly?
P.S. And the right hat is always a better choice than the dreaded “comb over…”
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