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On March 3, we celebrated the birthday of Theodor Geisel, whom we all know as Dr Seuss.
He is considered the most popular children’s book writer in our history, and he is the best selling children’s book writer of all time.
Born in 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts, he was the grandson of German immigrants (says today’s Writer’s Almanac — see below) and a lifelong Lutheran.
He was a Dartmouth graduate, but an Oxford dropout.
His mother read him bedtime stories every night. His father became a zookeeper who brought Theodor with him to work. The boy grew up at the zoo, running around cages with baby lions and tigers.
At Dartmouth, he majored in English and wrote for the humor magazine. But one night he was caught drinking gin (this was during Prohibition) and disciplined. He was forbidden to engage in extracurricular activities such as writing for the magazine, of which he was the editor-in-chief.
He continued to write subversively, signing his pieces with his mother’s maiden name, Seuss.
By the way, the German pronunciation of the name is “Zoiss.” But people in the States kept pronouncing it “Zooss,” so that became the sound. And it rhymed with Mother Goose.
In 1937, he published his first children’s book, “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” He said he was inspired by the rhythm of a steamliner cruiser he was on. It was written in rhyming anapestic meter, also called trisyllabic meter.
The meter was catchy — people enjoyed the sound. It is made up of twoo weak beats, followed by a stressed syllable. As in
“And toDAY the Great YERtle, that MARvelous HE / is KING of the MUD. That is ALL he can SEE.
In the 1950s, a study called “Why Johnny Can’t Read” was written by an Austrian immigrant, an education specialist who argued that Dick and Jane primers were not only boiring, but worse, not an effective method for teaching reading.
He called them “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers.”
And they went “through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading ‘Look, look’ or ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘Come, come’ or ‘See the funny, funny animal’. ”
A publisher at Random House thought that Dr Seuss, who had published a few very imaginative but not well-known children’s books, might be able to write a book that would be very good for teaching kids to read.
Geisel was invited to dinner and told, “Write me astory that first-graders can’t put down!”
He spent nine months composing “The Cat in the Hat.” Using just 220 different words, it was 1,702 words long. He revised meticulously. He said
Writing for children is murder. A chapter has to be boiled down to a paragraph. Every word has to count.
Almost immediately, “The Cat in the Hat” was selling 12,000 copies a month. It sold a million copies in the first five years.
Dr Seuss has sold more books for Random House Publishing than any other writer in its history.
sole source: “The Writer’s Almanac,” a radio show/online newletter produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media. Broadcasts are supported by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine for over 90 years.
Visit http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/archive.php to subscribe. You’ll receive a daily poem and a list of writers who were born on that day… I look forward to it every morning.
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