The Man Behind the Colourful World of Dr Seuss

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The name Dr Seuss immediately conjures up images of colourful, crazy characters that are just as surreal as the world they inhabit. Whether it is Green Eggs and Ham, the Cat In the Hat, or Horton Hears a Who!, almost everyone who has read Dr Seuss’ books has a favourite.

The more than 60 children’s books that Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote and illustrated under his famous pen name have sold more than 600 million copies worldwide. They have been translated into more than 20 languages, and include some of the most popular books published for children. But while we know so much about his stories, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the man who wrote them, and it turns out his life was as colourful as his charming creations.

Early Life and Education

Dr Seuss was born on the 2nd of March 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His parents were Theodor and Henrietta, and he had a sister, Marnie.

Theodor Jr. grew up in his family home on Fairfield Street, which was not far from the street he mentioned in the very first children’s book he wrote, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

After high school, Theodor Jr. enrolled at Dartmouth College. While there, he and fellow students were caught drinking contraband gin, and as punishment, he was forced to resign from his post on the college humour magazine. He decided to start using the pen name Dr Seuss so that he could continue to submit work to the magazine.

After graduating in 1925, he travelled to Oxford, UK, where he attended Lincoln College. While there, he met Helen Palmer, the woman who not only convinced him to follow a career in drawing, but who also became his wife. It is thanks to her that Theodor Jr. enriched the world with his incredible classical children’s books.

A Working Man

After leaving Oxford in 1927, Dr Seuss and Helen left England for the USA. Initially, he drew illustrations and cartoons for magazines such as Life and Vanity Fair.

One of his cartoons led to him being offered work on a FLIT insecticide advertising campaign. He later also drew political cartoons for PM, a liberal daily newspaper published in New York. Within months, he and his wife enjoyed a much better standard of living, and in the 10 years that followed, they visited an incredible 30 countries, which at the time, was no mean feat.

In 1931, Dr Seuss illustrated a children’s book for the first time. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller’s list and he then illustrated a sequel, which also enjoyed good sales. It is almost impossible to believe that he couldn’t even find a publisher for his third book for children, but that is what happened! 

Successful Children’s Books

While on an ocean voyage with his wife in 1936, Theodor Jr. was inspired to write a poem that he also illustrated and turned into his first published original children’s book. However, finding a publisher for And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was not easy.

After being rejected by as many as 43 different publishers, Dr Seuss met a former classmate by chance. The conversation they had paved the way for the book to be published by Vanguard Press the following year. He then wrote four more books, one of which was Horton Hatches the Egg, before the US became involved with World War II. During the war he put writing classical children’s books on hold and focused on political cartoons and military film productions, one of which won a 1947 Academy Award. Following the war, he continued creating works for children.

The Cat In the Hat and Beyond

Following a Life magazine story about childhood illiteracy, Houghton Mifflin education director William Ellsworth Spaulding issued a challenge to Dr Seuss. He gave him a list of 348 words that children in first grade should learn, and then told him to use 250 of them to write an entertaining, engaging children’s book.

The writer and illustrator turned 236 of those words into The Cat In the Hat. It was accessible to younger readers, who could not get enough of it. He followed it up with more books for beginners, such as Green Eggs and Ham, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, as well as works for older readers.

In 1956 Dr Seuss received an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College. His wife Helen died in 1967, and in 1968, the classical children’s books author married Audrey Stone. He died of oral cancer at age 87 on the 24th of September 1991, and Audrey was the guardian of his legacy until she passed away age 97 in 2018.

Dr Seuss made it easier for children to learn to read, and to discover the joy of reading. In honour of his contribution, the USA celebrates National Read Across America Day annually on the 2nd of March. Discovering reading’s joys is something that I hope will help children to do too, as there’s a whole world just waiting to be unlocked by the written word.

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