Theodor Geisel here. You might know me better as Dr. Seuss, the author of Green Eggs and Ham and many other children’s books. Seuss is my middle name, but I’m not a real doctor. You can just call me Ted, which is what my wife and friends call me unless they’re mad at me, and then they call me something else.
Something decidedly less friendly.
MikeWJ asked me to guest-write a post for him today. Something about writing a parody in the style of Dr. Seuss. I suppose that means he expects me to get poetic and use the anapestic, trochaic and iambic tetrameters that made me famous. He probably also expects me to make up funny words like fuzzlewump and crickety, and rhyme them with words like crumpet and persnickety.
But I don’t wanna. Not on a wall, or with a ball, or even with a double-shot of my beloved gin and tonic in my hand to help me get through it. I think MikeWJ will understand. I’ve written dozens of books in that style, and I’d just like to be myself for once, if you don’t mind. Or even if you do.
So if you really want to read something in my own style, here’s a secret: You are.
Want to know another secret?
Although I married twice and kids’ books made me filthy rich, I never had any children of my own. I don’t like them very much. As I told my second wife, they scare me a little. They’re noisy, messy and unpredictable. Whenever they’re around, I can’t help but think, What will they do next? What will they do next?* That’s why I don’t write for children. I write for people.
This news may come as a surprise to my fans, especially the librarians and teachers. I like teachers and librarians. They’re warm, wonderful people. They perform an invaluable service. Also, it was a nutty high school English teacher who first encouraged me to pursue writing professionally. But let’s be honest. Sometimes educators can be a little stuffy, bookishly puffy, and maybe—just perhaps—the teensiest, tinsiest bit fluffy. Most of them don’t want you coloring outside the lines, or bending the rules too much, and they’ll stifle creativity if it conflicts with curriculum.
Some people may think of me as an educator, but I’m as subversive as hell. I’ve always had a mistrust of adults. I’m not sure they always trusted me, either. It’s probably the slicked-back hair, or the fact that I grew up in a brewery.
Whatever the reason, did you know a lot of schools were initially reluctant to use The Cat in the Hat as a primer even though I loaded it with 220 new-reader vocabulary words? They only relented after parents and children demanded it. I showed the educators. As of yesterday, The Cat in the Hat had sold 11 million copies and been translated into 12 languages, including Yiddish and Latin. Its Latin title is Catus Petasatus, which sounds like a venereal disease but means “the cat with the travelling cap on.” I think it loses something in translation, but in a direction that I like.
Anyway, boy, am I glad the schools relented. Ever read Dick and Jane or Fox on a Box?
Classic school books.
Oh, sorry. Dozed off for minute there thinking about school.
As I was going to say before I blacked out—thank God for black coffee!—I wrote Cat in the Hat in the mid-fifties at the request of my publisher. He was disturbed by the news that kids weren’t learning how to read because kids’ schoolbooks were boring. He also knew he could make a lot of money with a good kids’ book. That’s publishers for you; they’re the biggest champions of literacy in the world so long as it puts a little change in their pockets.
My publisher came to me because he knew I understood why little Johnny couldn’t read. Johnny’s brain was turned to strawberry jelly by traditional look-and-see books. You could crack little Johnny’s skull with a blackjack and spread the jam on your toast for breakfast. This is why I’ve long believed that you can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
My best books are popular because they break the rules. They’re short, sometimes just two- or three-hundred words arranged on the page in goofy ways. I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope…and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.
As for my drawings, well, I admit they’re silly, even sloppy. I only took one art class in high school, and the teacher didn’t like my work. He told me not to pursue a career in art. I ignored him. The teacher wanted me to draw the world as it is; I wanted to draw things as I saw them. Kids exaggerate the same way I do. They overlook things they can’t draw, their pencils slip, and they get funny effects. I’ve learned to incorporate pencil slips into my style.
Here’s another surprise for you: I’m proud of best-selling books like Hop on Pop and Go Dog, Go!, but I didn’t set out to be writer of children’s books. I wanted to write serious literature. That’s why I went to Dartmouth, Oxford and the Sorbonne—to get a degree and become a professor like my dad wanted me to do.
But like I said, school frusrated me. I liked writing humor for the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern well enough, then the stodgy dean forced me to resign after I was caught smoking cigarettes and drinking gin with friends in my dorm room. I admit it was during the Prohibition, but could you be more provincial? So I showed him, too. I started secretly submitting articles to the magazine under a pen name: Seuss. Yep, the same Seuss you see on the cover of Horton Hears a Who!
Phooey on school and their mossy rules! I wasn’t about to let them hold me down. One reason I dropped out of Oxford and the Sorbonne was that I thought they were taking life too damn seriously, concentrating too much on nonessentials. English and writing was my major, but I think that’s a mistake for anybody. That’s teaching you the mechanics of getting water out of a well that may not exist.
I’d still to write some books for adults, and I think I could. I can handle big themes. I was heavily influenced by radical writers like Voltaire, Hilaire Belloc and Jonathan Swift. Even Marxists like Lenin. I also wrote overblown propaganda films for the U.S. military during World War II. Fist-pounding movies like Our Job in Japan and Our Job in Germany, which won an Academy Award for Short Documentary in 1946. My 1947 film Design for Death criticized Japan’s warring culture and won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Both of those films were a little over the top—it was propaganda, after all—but with my background, I think I could write important books with lofty themes rivalling books like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Maybe Oprah would put me in her book club.
I wouldn’t mind dabbling in ligher adult genres, either, like science fiction and horror. Remember my book How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Sometimes I wish I’d gone more Stephen King on it and made the Grinch and everybody in Who-ville a little less happy-go-lucky and a whole lot meaner. Like maybe the mean old Grinch doesn’t just sneak into town to steal their Christmas presents. He breaks into little Cindy-Lou’s bedroom and kills and eats her. And then the enraged Who-villers hop on their snowmobiles and hunt him down. They shoot him 123 times times two and cut off his head with their knives, sticking a sprig of holly in the gaping hole in his neck and carrying his noggin back into town on a tall pole.
Maybe if I’d done that with the story instead of having the Grinch go all soft-hearted so the kiddos who buy my books can get to sleep on Christmas Eve, people would stop thinking of me as just a writer of kids’ books. Maybe I’d win a real Pulitzer Prize instead of the “special” Pulitzer Prize they gave me. Maybe everybody would stop calling me Dr. Seuss and talking to me in silly rhymes, and start calling me by my grownup name.
T.S. Geisel, novelist. I like the sound of that.
Oh, and by the way, for the record, Seuss isn’t pronounced Seuss.
It’s Zoice, which rhymes with voice. Look it up.
* All the italicized sentences in this post are Theodor Geisel quotes.
Everything else in this extra-dry parody of the legendary Dr. Seuss is 110 percent true. I added 10 percent for the obvious exaggeration about the alternate take on the Grinch and maybe a few other minor facts. Geisel loved to exaggerate, and once said, “I tend to basically exaggerate in life, and in writing, it’s fine to exaggerate. I really enjoy overstating for the purpose of getting a laugh. It’s very flattering, that laugh, and at the same time it gives pleasure to the audience and accomplishes more than writing very serious things.”