gmtoday_small.gif

 


Dr. Seuss comes back with ‘What Pet Should I Get’

July 27, 2015


My boys are 11 now, twins well on their way to teendom, and the cultural artifacts in their bedroom for the most part reflect that: the ominous "Lord of the Rings" movie poster on the door, the snarky Simpsons comics taped to the wall.

But when I recently checked a quiet corner for "The Cat in the Hat" — or, more precisely, my son Calvin’s first grade "Cat in the Hat" art project — it was still there, untouched by time and fashion. I asked the nearest tween, my other son, Zephy, if kids his age like Dr. Seuss, and he did a little double-take before fixing me with a smile that suggested I was either A) messing with him or B) tragically clueless. "Everybody likes Dr. Seuss," he said.

More than two decades after his death, Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, is once again the author of a hot new book, with preorders of "What Pet Should I Get?" propelling it to No. 1 in Amazon’s "stories in verse" best-seller category well before its July 28 publication date. (The manuscript was in a box found in his California home after his 1991 death, and his widow, Audrey, retrieved the work while cleaning out his office space in 2013.)

Random House has announced a first printing of a million books, up from initial plan of 500,000.

Regardless of whether "Pet," which was probably written in about 1960, lives up to the hype, it’s unlikely to affect the author’s standing as a giant of children’s literature.

While Harper Lee’s reputation rests on one book, making the newly released "To Kill a Mockingbird" prequel "Go Set a Watchman" a potential game-changer, Dr. Seuss is the author of dozens of acclaimed and beloved books, including modern classics such as "The Cat in the Hat," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and "Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories." The American Library Association named an award for him; Read Across America Day — a celebration that claims more than 45 million participants — is held on his birthday.

Presidents laud Dr. Seuss, Hollywood retells his stories, kids dress as his characters for Halloween.

"I think he’s here for the duration," says Judy Freeman, a former school librarian and co-author of "The Handbook for Storytellers."

"There’s nothing dated about his books. ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,’ which is his first book; it’s still delightful. His ‘I Can Read’ books — ‘Hop on Pop’ — they’re still great. We’ve got a lot of big-time guys now, like Jon Klassen is the flavor of the week, and he’s adorable and funny, but I really think there’s something about Seuss that no one has duplicated, and that’s the combination of fantasy with poetry and his goofy characters: characters that are believable even though they’re wild and crazy. The Grinch — the Grinch is here forever."

In 1937, when Geisel presented his first children’s book to New York publishers, he was swimming against the tide. Books that taught reading skills were staid and instructive — think the bland, well-meaning "Run, run. Run, Dick, run." repetitions in the "Dick and Jane" readers.

Geisel, a Dartmouth-educated illustrator, had already done a cover for Life magazine and developed a high-profile advertising campaign for Standard Oil’s Flit insecticide. ("Flies! Flies! Flies! Who the h— wants Flies?") He brought the same sweetly subversive style to "And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street," his story of Marco, a boy who imagines a parade of unlikely creatures, and the father who doubts him.

"Stop telling such outlandish tales," Marco’s father memorably scolds. "Stop turning minnows into whales."

The book was turned down by 27 publishers, according to "Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat" by Caroline M. Smith, and the author was actually heading home to burn the manuscript when he bumped into a college acquaintance who worked in book publishing.

"If I had been walking down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today," Geisel would later observe.

He published more than 40 books in the next 53 years, including "Horton Hears a Who!" (1954), "Green Eggs and Ham" (1960), "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" (1960), and "Hop on Pop" (1963).

"He was right at the cutting edge," says Diane Foote, curator of the Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University in River Forest. "He was really the first person to marry the work of learning to read with the joy of reading itself. Even though there are many other people who do that now, he was the vanguard and he still does it probably better than anyone."

Rereading "The Cat in the Hat," I found it every bit as much of an emotional roller-coaster as it was when I was a kid, although these days I relate more to worrywart goldfish than to those wide-eyed rascals, Thing One and Thing Two. The illustrations are as fresh as ever, and the power of Dr. Seuss’ deceptively simple rhymes is all the more astonishing when you consider that the vocabulary was taken largely from a list of 223 suggested words for young readers:

"Look at me!

Look at me now!" said the cat.

"With a cup and a cake

On the top of my hat!

I can hold up TWO books!

I can hold up the fish!

And some milk on a dish!

And look!

I can hop up and down on the ball!

But that is not all!

Oh, no.

That is not all."

Among my favorite Seuss books when I was a kid was "Yertle the Turtle," with its gentle yet indelible depiction of reptile oppression and its wholly satisfying vision of justice restored:

"And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,

Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.

And the turtles, of course ... all the turtles are free

As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be."

As an adult I often think of Yertle, who declared himself king of all he could see and made everyone else suffer for his vision of personal greatness. We all come upon Yertles, and it’s helpful to be able to identify them, whether they’re strutting across the world stage or tormenting their bridesmaids.

I think of "McElligot’s Pool," too, one of the few Seuss books that was painted rather than inked. This is Seuss at his most visually inventive. Fish in an astonishing array of colors shapes and sizes ski, parachute and strut through the glacial green waters of our young hero’s imagination. And just when you think you’ve seen it all — a rooster fish, a pinwheel fish — Seuss once again ups the ante, presenting you with a new creature that trumps anything you’ve seen before.

Maybe it’s because so many of the Seuss books have been made into movies or TV specials, but they also seem to surface with exceptional frequency in both pop culture and daily life. A villain in the popular TV drama "The Royals," for instance, referred to his not-so-beloved niece and nephew as "Thing One" and "Thing Two." And just a few days ago, Zephy steered me in front of a mirror, assumed a surprisingly convincing sneer and announced: "Look! I can do the Grinch."

I was surprised at first when Zephy said the Seuss books were among his favorites, because I knew they were never his No. 1 favorites. He went through a Frog and Toad stage, a Little Bear stage and a Bob the Builder stage. "Go, Dog. Go!" was big for a while, as were several hamster books.

But then I remembered that even my beloved "McElligot’s Pool" was never as dear to my heart as, say, "Winnie-the-Pooh." "McElligot" was among my very favorite childhood reads, but it was probably never No. 1, or not for very long.

Even the judges for the prestigious Caldecott Medal never named Geisel’s No. 1: He was a finalist three times, but never the winner, and I’m guessing that’s not entirely coincidental. The qualities that can make a book No. 1 on your list at any given time — hamsters, dump trucks, a particular artistic or literary style — may be quirky and ephemeral. The qualities that make an author a top contender year after year, on the other hand, are likely to be universal and enduring.

"(Dr. Seuss) was never really at the top of my list" is the way Zephy puts it.

"But most of the books that are on the top of the list come and go. Dr. Seuss has always stayed up there."

———

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services