Thursday, March 27, 2008

Author focus: Dr Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss and sometimes Theo LeSieg) was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, often sang her children to sleep "chanting" rhymes. Theodor (Ted) gives credit to his mother for his ability to create the rhymes that made him famous.

Theodor left Springfield to attend Dartmouth College, where he became editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth's humour magazine. It was here that he began signing his work as "Seuss" which was both his middle name and his mother's maiden name.

When he finished his course at Dartmouth his father inquired as to what he was going to do with his life. His father was keen for him to become a university professor and paid for him to attend Oxford University. One day in class he sat next to Helen Palmer and she saw him doodling. She suggested that he become a cartoonist rather than a professor. He took her advice and they were later married.

The Cartoonist

When he returned to the USA he began a career as a cartoonist. The Saturday Evening Post and other publications published some of his early pieces, but the bulk of Theodor’s early career was devoted to creating advertising campaigns for Standard Oil, which he did for more than 15 years. His first major product to be marketed was "Flit" fly spray, and it has been suggested that he created the first advertisement that ever used humour to sell this product.

He pursued a very successful career as a cartoonist and in advertising before trying to publish his first children’s book. Interestingly, many of his early sketches published in newspapers resemble the characters that eventually found their way into his books. For example, Horton-like elephants, nizzard-like birds and yertle-like turtles.

The children's author

It took him 27 attempts before a publisher took his first book -
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Vanguard Press eventually published it. The story is about a young boy named Marco who as he wanders down the street sees a horse and cart that suddenly through his eyes appears to take on some special qualities. A horse and cart becomes a chariot pulled by a zebra, then a chariot pulled by a reindeer, then a sled pulled by an elephant and so on. The images have the characteristic Seuss colour, sharp lines and simplicity of language and structure. The language is rich, repetitive and rhythmic. His style never moved far from this wonderful recipe but the trademark of his work was the wonderful and inventive way he used language, rhyme and repetition. It has been suggested that his work contributed words to our lexicon for the first time. For example, he used the word "nerd" before anyone else (as a nonsense word) and eventually it found its way into our language as a way to describe someone with quirky personality who is bright and somewhat eccentric.

Perhaps his most famous book is
The Cat in the Hat. Houghton Mifflin had asked Ted to write and illustrate a children's primer using only 225 "new-reader" vocabulary words. He was never a fan of basal readers and so this was his non-boring attempt at a limited vocabulary book.

At the time of his death on September 24, 1991, Ted had written and illustrated 44 children's books, including such all-time favourites as
Green Eggs and Ham, Oh, the Places You'll Go, Fox in Socks, and one of my favourites, I Wish that I had Duck Feet. I suspect that the latter owes much to his father's hobby of taxidermy that was developed when he was superintendent of the Forest Park Zoo. Apparently, his father would give Theodor left over parts from his efforts and eventually some of these were made into imaginary creatures. He literally had a box of spare parts. This is a story about a child struggling for an identity, wishing that he had this and that so that he could impress Big Bill Brown. If only he had duck feet, antlers, a whale spout and so on, all would be different. But with each scenario he realises that there would be problems with this new identity. Eventually, he concludes "And that is why, I think that I, just wish to be like ME". And all the animal parts are thrown into the bin.

Seuss was very much a social commentator not just a funny cartoonist. His book
How the Grinch Stole Christmas explores whether there might just be more to Christmas than presents, greed and excess. The collection of stories titled Sneetches and other stories explores racial identity, the consequences of people being unprepared to compromise, and fear of the unknown. The Lorax is a commentary on a world that ignores the need for environmental sustainability.

His books have been translated into more than 15 languages, and over 200 million copies have been printed.

Besides the books, his works have provided the source for eleven children's television specials, a Broadway musical and a feature-length motion picture. Other major motion pictures are on the way.

His honours included two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The work of Dr Seuss is timeless and will continue to amuse, challenge and teach future generations of children.

For those interested in his art exhibition is currently running in Sydney -
The Secret Art of Dr Seuss. The exhibition is at the Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery in Sydney until the 6th April 2008. While this is not an exhibition of original art it contains limited edition prints and hand-painted cast resin replicas of some of his zany mythical creatures like the "Goo Goo Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast" that were made from the left-over animal parts from his father's taxidermy. Seuss began creating three-dimensional sculptures in the 1930s. What was most unusual about these mixed-media sculptures was the use of real animal parts including beaks, antlers and horns from deceased Forest Park Zoo animals.

The Dr Seuss National Memorial website and the Seussville website were helpful in preparing this post.


Andrew said...

I have recently become a huge Dr Seuss fan. My 2 year old son loves me reading them to him, so much so that on a plane trip not long ago, we read them for several hours together. My favourite one is "Mr Brown can moo, can you" - the rhythm is superb, like verbal music.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Andrew, children love virtually all of his books. Glad you're reading to your son. Trevor