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Dr. Seuss biography reveals politics behind our favorite children’s stories

A photo of Dr. Seuss in a New York exhibit. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated some of the most popular children’s books of all time. But how much do you actually know about Theodore Geisel?

A new biography called Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination will tell you everything you need to know. It’s written by Brian Jay Jones, who also penned best-selling biographies on Jim Henson and George Lucas.

Jones tells the story of one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous books, The Cat in the Hat, which was actually a reading primer for elementary school children.

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“In 1954 there was an article in Life Magazine written by the Nobel Prize winning novelist John Hersey who said, ‘Kids can’t read and the reason kids aren’t reading is because Dick and Jane are terrible. If only Dr. Seuss would just draw a Dick and Jane book.’ Word got back to Dr. Seuss, and he met with the publisher who basically threw down the gauntlet and said, ‘Write me a book that first graders can’t put down.’ But the catch is, he could only use the word list that Dick and Jane use. The word list is a vetted by educators’ list of words that are appropriate for certain reading levels and you can’t go off that list.”

Dr Seuss struggled to create a book within the restraint of 300 chosen words.

“Try writing a story where you don’t have any real adjectives to work with and you can’t do a possessive and you can’t do a plural. He got to a point after almost a year where he said, ‘I’m just going to read through this list and the first two words that rhyme I’ll just go with.’ Thank god he didn’t actually take that policy or we might have ended up with ‘Tall Ball,’ but he found the words ‘cat’ and ‘hat,’ and from that little nugget started creating the story and the scenario.”

The Cat and the Hat came out in 1957 and it was a smash hit. Dr. Seuss had written other children’s books, but now he could finally quit his job in advertising.

“You have to remember, he had a long and successful career as an ad man. He was sort of a 1930s Don Draper. He had these very successful campaigns that he wrote and drew the cartoons for. So when he gets into something like The Grinch, he sort of has this epiphany. He dares to write in The Grinch, ‘Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.’ I mean, that is essentially the antithesis of everything he’d been working on in his advertising career. In his advertising career, everything that makes you happy comes from a store. So for the first time he’s doing this anti-commercialism message.”

Politics also crept into a couple Dr. Seuss books.

Yertle the Turtle, for example, is a conscious allegory of Hitler — he admitted as much. He said he almost drew Yertle with a Hitler mustache. That book’s about somebody literally sitting on the little guy and building themselves up at the expense of the people beneath him. That’s going on in a literal sense in Yertle the Turtle and finally gets his comeuppance when the common man at the bottom raises his voice. In this case it was a burp. Using the word ‘burp’ in a kids’ book was highly controversial.”

But words were Dr. Seuss’s thing.

“Dr. Seuss invented the word ‘nerd,’ as far as anybody can tell. The first place it shows up is in If I Ran the Zoo. One of his real talents was to create these organic sounding nonsense words that sound like they already existed. A word like Grinch, a word like Sneetch, a word like Lorax.”

If I Ran The Zoo came out in 1950 and within a year, according to a 1951 issue of Newsweek, “nerd” replaced the word “square” in popular vernacular.

Ironically, one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors had no children of his own.

“They could not have children so they made up their own,” said Jones. “There’s a fake child they made up named Chrysanthemum Pearl. They used Chrysanthemum Pearl mainly to take the air out of the inevitable conversation that went to children during parties. When everybody would start telling stories about their own kids, he would whip out stories of Chrysanthemum Pearl doing the most miraculous, impossible to do things, and people would get the point that they were talking about their children too much and they would stop the story.”

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