Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Seuss Geisel, has inspired children for decades with his imagination and stories for all ages. As we celebrate his 108th birthday, National Read Across America Day and the release of The Lorax, we thought we would take you behind the stories we hold so dear to our hearts and share some behind-the-scenes facts and tales you may not know went into their origin and publication!
Certainly one of the most underrated Seuss books, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was actually his first published children’s book. But it wasn’t an easy one to get published. It had already been rejected by just under 30 publishers when Mike McClintock, an old classmate and currently the juvenile editor at Vanguard Press, found it. But prior to Vanguard, Seuss was so angry and discouraged that he nearly burned the manuscript. Luckily he didn’t because it was the birth of the wonder of Dr. Seuss (and because it’s one of my all time favorites!)
But the story of Mulberry Street gets even better. Seuss began writing it while aboard a ship, on his way home from Europe, and used imagery that was inspired by his own hometown. Mulberry Street is the name of a street in Springfield, Massachusetts, just one mile away from Seuss’ childhood home and the parade that Marco describes throughout the book was inspired by Seuss’ memories of Springfield’s street life. Interestingly, Marco was named after the son of Mike McClintock, the publisher that finally took a chance on Seuss. Marco even got a character reprisal in Seuss’ book, McElligot’s Pool.
Whether or not it ranks as your favorite Seuss book, no one can deny The Cat in the Hat as one of Seuss’ defining books. In fact, it pushed him from a successful children’s author to a household name even when it was first released. But the book that has inspired so many actually came to being as a result of a challenge!
William Spaulding, of Houghton Mifflin, had seen a 1954 Life magazine article by John Hersey that said the reason schoolchildren couldn’t read was before the books, like “Dick and Jane,” that they were using were too boring. Spaulding then challenged Seuss to write a story that 1st graders wouldn’t be able to put down, which meant dealing with vocabulary that 1st graders would understand. In the end, Seuss used 236 distinct words to write The Cat in the Hat, 54 occur once, 33 twice and 221 of the 236 are monosyllabic.
For a man who is known to be a master inventor of words, to stick to a word list and word limit was quite the challenge. But it seems to have been worth the effort, don’t you think?
Another of Seuss’ books that was written with simple vocabulary intended for beginner readers, Publishers Weekly cited this in 2001 as the fourth best selling English-language children’s book of all time. I mean, hey, if it inspires a new breakfast dish at IHOP, it’s probably pretty well known!
But the most impressive aspect of this book is that there are just fifty different words used throughout the entire story. This was the result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher Bennett Cerf that came after having written The Cat in the Hat in only a little over 225 words. The bet was that Seuss could not complete an entire book with so few words. Alas, he won that bet!
And the 50 words are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
This hugely popular book was the last Seuss book published before his death. While it is written in the same style as many of his classics like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, it does stand apart from the others in that it has many specific characters, like a narrator and reader. The young boy is only referred to as “you,” drawing the reader into the story like never before.
That is one of the many reasons the book resonates so well with people of all ages. It is still a huge seller today for that very reason, as it particularly hits home for those moving forward in life. It still sells about 300,000 copies every year because so many people (of all ages) give it to college and high school graduates. I know I got one!
If you can’t tell by now, it seems that Seuss was able to have fun with his role as author. Between bets and challenges, he also was smart enough to check in on his editors and publishers. In an early manuscript of the book, there was a line “When I read I am smart / I always cut whole words apart. / Con Stan Tin O Ple, Tim Buk Too / Con Tra Cep Tive, Kan Ga Roo.”
Don’t run to your Hop on Pop copies just yet, appalled at the idea of Seuss mentioning contraceptives in a children’s book! This line never made it into the final version, because it was just a method of Seuss checking to see if Bennett Cerf was actually reading the draft. Cerf did catch the line and we now have the line “My father / can read / big words, too. / Like… / Constantinople / and / Timbuktu.” Considering we can nearly recite that from memory, it’s an iconic line that we’re glad came to be just what it is.
This story is filled with interesting facts. While Seuss never began his stories with a moral in mind, he has admitted that the title character represented Adolf Hitler. Still, that fails to be as intriguing as the controversy over the use of the word “burp”!
Before publication, a meeting was called to decide whether or not they could use the word “burp” within the story, because the word was, at the time, considered relatively rude and no one had ever burped before in a children’s book. Scandalous! However, they left it in and “plain little Mack” does indeed do “a plain little thing” – he burps! And it seems to have been a good move.
This is another underrated gem from the mind of Seuss. I’ve even come across individuals who don’t know it (and I promptly direct them to the nearest bookstore)! It’s an unforgettable tale because it takes Seuss’ penchant for rhyming and inventing words to an all time high!
With zelfs that live on shelfs, jertains in curtains, zlocks behind clocks and noothgrushes on toothbrushes, this book features a boy talking about the strange creatures that live in his house. But in 1996, 24 years after it was originally published, it was republished and edited to remove some of the creatures like the vug under the rug and the red under the bed. Why? Well, they were deemed too scary!
Stories at a Glance:
The Lorax (1971)
While this is one of Seuss’ most analyzed stories for its seeming connection and take on environmentalism, it didn’t mean that Seuss wasn’t able to change a few of his thoughts after the book had been published. In many early versions of the book, you’ll find the line, “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie,” but not in current versions! 14 years after it was originally published, Seuss removed the line from the book after the Ohio Sea Grant Program wrote to him and told him how much the conditions had improved.
The Foot Book (1968)
This book was the first in Seuss’s line of Bright and Early Books series, which was intended for children too young for the Beginner Books. But it wasn’t the only first the book had on its resume. It was also the first book Seuss worked on after the death of his wife Helen Palmer Geisel. As a result, he put in eight-hour working days as a way of coping with his loss.
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
It’s no secret that Seuss loved to create words… and some of them even made it into the English language! If I Ran the Zoo marks the first documented modern English appearance of the word “nerd.” In the story, Seuss writes “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!” So next time someone calls you a nerd, and personally we take that name as a compliment, thank Dr. Seuss!
Let’s all celebrate Dr. Seuss today and read our favorite story of his to remember just how important the imagination is. So, happy birthday, Dr. Seuss. And to quote the book that started it all, your’s is “a story that no one can beat!”