Thursday 26 April 2018

The return of Dr Seuss - 20 years after he died

Buried treasure from a master of children's stories

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, was an American children's author who wrote dozens of rhyming stories. They included The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Now, HarperCollins has dug up six stories not seen since 1951, and reprinted them in a new book, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. The publisher says it's the "literary equivalent of buried treasure".

Theodor Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the grandson of German immigrants. As a teenager at Dartmouth College, he was caught drinking and was banned from writing for the school's magazine, so he adopted a pseudonym, Seuss, to become Dr Seuss when he graduated. He later went to Lincoln College Oxford to study for a doctorate in English literature, where he met his wife, Helen, but he returned to Amer-ica without completing the degree. He began submitting illustrations and articles to magazines, and made money by drawing advertisements.

A Seuss trademark was to combine the ludicrous with the logical, as he once explained. "If I start out with the concept of a two-headed animal, I must put two hats on his head and two toothbrushes in the bathroom. It's logical insanity." His first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was a poem inspired by the rhythm of an ocean liner's engine during an Atlantic crossing. It was rejected 27 times before being published in 1937. His books have now sold 600 million copies in 95 countries, and been translated into 17 languages.

In May 1954, a report by Life magazine on illiteracy concluded that children were not learning to read because books were too boring. This prompted the director of an educational publisher to commission Seuss to write a story using a list of only 250 words, with a challenge to submit "a book children can't put down". The result was The Cat in the Hat, which used 236 of the words, and remains a bestseller.

The pronunciation of Seuss was for some time a point of debate. He said it should rhyme with "voice", and a college friend once wrote this verse: "You're wrong as the deuce / And you shouldn't rejoice / If you're calling him Seuss. / He pronounces it Soice." He reverted to the conventional pronunciation, because it "evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children's books to be associated with — Mother Goose".

Seuss's early cartoons were occasionally political, especially in opposing fascism. He was one of the first to draw attention to the Holocaust, and even experienced anti-Semitism, though he was a Christian. However, he was later criticised for his support of the programme of relocating Japanese-Americans in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. "If we want to win, we've got to kill Japs," he said. "We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left." After the war, he tempered his feelings, and dedicated a book to a Japanese friend.

One of his best books, The Lorax, was a fable highlighting the threat to the environment of industrialisation. This was written 40 years ago: "You're glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed! / No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed. / So I'm sending them off. Oh, their future is dreary. / They'll walk on their fins and get woefully weary / in search of some water that isn't so smeary."

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