Not too many years later, after my older son was born, I happily retrieved those carefully saved books from the attic, added to the collection, and could once again share the incredible world of children’s literature with the minds it was designed to meet and charm. Some nights I read to our boys while they ate supper if their daddy was late getting home. Other nights he read to them upstairs in the open sitting area above the kitchen after supper so I could listen while I took care of odd chores. As he read, old friendships were renewed as the familiar voices of those delightful authors once again became a much anticipated part of my life.
Dr. Seuss: King of
Theodor Seuss Geisel — my old friend Dr. Seuss — prolifically wrote children’s books, right up to his death in 1991 at age 87. After attending Dartmouth College, Dr. Seuss worked as a cartoonist and had a career in advertising. After 27 publisher rejections, his children’s writing career finally launched in 1937 when And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published.
At a time when children’s learn-to-read primers were rather boring and colorless, Dr. Seuss’ goal was to encourage children to read. So he wrote “The Cat in the Hat” using only 220 new-reader vocabulary words and his writing career soared. After fellow writer Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a book with 50 words or less, “Green Eggs and Ham” was born, much to the perpetual delight of his fans, including those with only the most basic reading skills. Part reading, part memorization, even the youngest, newest reader proudly shares an ability to read “Green Eggs and Ham” with any willing listener.
“Do you like green eggs and ham?
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
Would you like them here or there?
I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”
When working on new books, Dr. Seuss often wrote eight hours a day, sometimes wearing one of his unusual hats from his huge collection as a “thinking cap.” He created unconventional, zany characters whose stories were told in captivating rhyme and easily decodable made-up words which create an immediate, defining picture for the reader. Words like Grin-itch spinach, Gluppity-Glopp, Schloppity-Schlopp, Brown Bar-ba-loots, Doubt-trout, Triple-Sling Jigger, and Drum-Tummied Snumm easily translate themselves when read.
The basic goals to bring fun, pleasure, and motivation to readers brought world-wide appeal to Dr. Seuss’ work. It has been translated into 15 languages and millions and millions of copies have been sold. He also garnered an extensive list of literary awards and honors, in addition to an Oscar and two Emmys. In 1984 Dr. Seuss won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation Award “for his contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
Often writing about subjects near to his heart, Dr. Seuss’ words, in all their entertaining glory and exuberance, teach as well. In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton the Elephant’s tenacity as he refused to leave the egg he was determined to hatch, speaks miles about loyalty. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful one hundred per cent!” In Yertle the Turtle, a little turtle named Mack, who was at the bottom on the king’s throne made of hundreds of turtles, begged the king to have mercy on the turtles at the bottom as he asked for equality and justice.
“Your majesty, please…I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top, you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.
After the king refused to show any concern, Mack took action by burping and brought down the throne. The great king became merely King of the Mud. “And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free. As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”
While amusing his readers with dear, silly, often hardheaded characters, many of Dr. Seuss’ other stories offer life lessons. In 1971’s “The Lorax,” the title character is bound and determined to save Truffula trees from greed-driven polluters as his creator offers these words. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Gertrude McFuzz learns to be happy with just one simple tail feather, instead wishing for two like her vain friend Lolla-Lee-Lou. Horton the big-hearted elephant offers another lesson in “Horton Hears a Who” as he takes great care to protect a creature on a tiny speck of dust. “I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all, a person’s a person no matter how small.”
Other Storytelling Friends: Stevenson, Carle, Ringgold, Thompson
My family made a new friend in the children’s author James Stevenson thanks to my boys’ grandmother. She had a friend who reviewed children’s books for the Anniston Star and then passed the books along to us. With cartooning roots similar to Dr. Seuss, Stevenson became a cartoonist, cover artist, and writer for The New Yorker before creating a syndicated political cartoon strip. In 1968 he decided to try his hand at a children’s picture book. So Stevenson asked his eight-year-old son to tell him a story they could turn into a book. Standing next to his father at his desk, his son dictated the story as Stevenson wrote. He illustrated his son’s book, “If I Owned Candy Factory,” and his writing career devoted to children took off.
With his winning, offbeat sense of humor, Stevenson has now written more than 100 children’s books and has illustrated around 40. This total includes the illustrations for Dr. Seuss’ “I am Not Going to Get up Today.” Stevenson has collected more than 40 literary honors and awards. His light stories are upbeat, optimistic, and often deal with childhood issues like sibling rivalry, nightmares, and boredom. He creates funky characters you love to love as well as ones you love to hate. One of his series of books stars siblings Mary Ann and Louie who always turn to Grandpa with their problems. No matter what problem the children present, Grandpa always has a whopping bigger problem from his childhood to share.
“In We Hate Rain,” Mary Ann and Louie come to Grandpa complaining about having no fun and being bored after two days of rain. Grandpa responds, “You call this a rain? To me, it’s just a drizzle…” He then tells them the story about how it rained for three or four weeks when he and his brother Wainey were little boys. The resulting flood finally forced his family to the roof of their multistoried house where the last bit of food, a single cracker, was eaten by a massive bird before they could share it. When they woke up the next morning, the sun was shining, but the house was still full of water. So Grandpa dove down the stairs, swimming and frantically trying to open windows or doors, without success. However, once he pulled the plug out of the bathtub, “There was a tremendous noise, and a giant whirlpool and the whole house was almost entirely dry.”
Grandpa visits Mary Ann and Louie in their garden and they whine about its failure to grow in “Grandpa’s Too Good Garden.” So Grandpa regales them with another whopper in response. He explained that many years ago he and Wainey’s garden refused to grow. Their father threw his bottle of Miracle Hair-Grow out into the garden because he had used it for a month and he was still bald. As a result, the garden grew bigger than the house overnight and was eaten by giant-sized caterpillars. Grandpa was left hanging off the weathervane on top of the house after the caterpillars ate the vine he had climbed on. So Wainey came to his rescue, flying up to the weathervane on one of the caterpillars that had turned into a butterfly.
Stevenson’s additional engaging, quirky characters include an alligator named Monty, who has a propensity for naps but provides rides across the river for other animals so they can go to school, and Waylon, an extremely old elephant. Perhaps his most intriguing character is The Worst, a crotchety old curmudgeon who does not like anybody or anything. In “The Worst Person in the World,” The Worst lives alone in a terribly messy house with a yard of poison ivy, eats lemons which he considers too sweet for breakfast, hits flowers with his umbrella when he goes out for a walk, and actually enjoys drinking prune juice. However, as this series of books develops, in each story The Worst reveals a little part of himself somebody might be able to love.
All the children in my life have been fascinated by caterpillars. In Eric Carle’s boldly colored “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” one of those amazing creatures literally eats his way through the book which includes holes as signs of his huge appetite. After finally satisfying his hunger, the tiny caterpillar creates his cocoon and then emerges as a magnificent, multi-colored butterfly.
With a similar use of vibrant color, Faith Ringgold made a story quilt to share her story of “Cassie,” who dreamed of being free to go wherever she desires for all of her life. Cassie accomplishes this goal by actually flying. Ringgold later transformed her quilt into a remarkable book, “Tar Beach,” so Cassie’s story could be enjoyed by an even broader audience.
While Cassie lives the flying dream, in Kay Thompson’s “Eloise,” the extraordinarily precocious six-year-old title character lives the hotel dream.
The Plaza, an upscale New York City hotel, is Eloise’s luxurious home. Her mother is briefly mentioned but is never present. However, her faithful, fun-loving companions include a dog that looks like a cat, a turtle named Skipperdee, and her best friend, Nanny. Eloise thrives on room service, constantly creates headaches for her private tutor, and spends much of her day annoying the hotel staff and other guests while riding the elevators and tearing up and down the stairs.
The whimsical and imaginative literary inventions of our now old, comfortable friends, share endless rewards with the youngest as well as the oldest readers. In relishing their stories, we are enthusiastically reminded to laugh at ourselves often, to see humor in this frequently too serious world, and to find enduring life lessons in the very simplest of words.