On the basis of his extraordinary commercial success — 200 million copies of more than 40 books in 20 languages he has to be accounted the world’s most popular living writer. Over the entire span of history his only contenders are immortals on the order of Muhammad, Mao, and Mother Goose.
He has had one of the longest active careers of any living American author still hitting the best-seller lists: His first book appeared in 1937, his most recent in 1990. Even at that, he didn’t start writing books till he was 33 and already a famous cartoonist, best known for the gruesome imaginary insects featured in ads for the insecticide Flit.
He has revolutionized the teaching of reading by providing lively alternative primers to the infamously dull adventures of Dick and Jane.
It’s almost certain, if you’re under 50 years old, that you have read several of his books, or had them read to you. But if you sat beside this world-famous 87-year-old on an airplane and he told you his name Theodor Seuss Geisel (pronounced GUY-zel) — you probably wouldn’t do a double take. That’s because you’ve known him, all these years, only by his pseudonym: Dr. Seuss.
I have never forgotten my own first encounter with one of Dr. Seuss’ characters. It was in 1948. My third-grade teacher read aloud to our class The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, a comic nightmare with a central image as archetypal as the witch’s oven in Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella’s glass slipper. Young Bartholomew Cubbins happens to have come to town when the King of Didd is passing by in his coach. Bartholomew doffs his hat. The coach stops. The King insists that he take off his hat. Which he has, but now there’s another hat on his head, and when he takes that one off, still another. No matter how many hats he removes, he’s still wearing a hat, and the King is enraged and orders the boy’s head to be chopped off.
I can’t tell you how it ends (reviewers are sworn never to reveal how stories end), but almost anyone in America with a third-grade education can. Dr. Seuss writes that kind of classic. His stories are instant mythology — once told, remembered forever. Dr. Seuss is the man who invented the mean-spirited Grinch (in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) and — etymologists take note! — the Nerd (in If I Ran the Zoo), not to mention such other fabulous beasts as the scraggle-foot Mulligatawny, and the Rink-Rinker-Fink (which is only one of the Thinks You Can Think). There is also the tree-loving Lorax, who served this year — his 20th birthday — as an unofficial spokescreature for Earth Day.
If there is an element of Brothers Grimm scariness in Dr. Seuss’ genius, there is an even larger component of Mother Goose, of comforting whimsies, jingling wordplay, and sheer silliness. For anyone with children in that critical transitional period between being read to and being able to read by themselves, a shelf full of Dr. Seuss classics is as needed a nursery staple as Crayolas and teddy bears.
Here, in chronological order, are 10 of Dr. Seuss’ best books (all published by Random House):
And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937)
From the reindeer pulling the hero’s chariot to the phantasmagorical parade that winds things up, this first of all his books for children is prototypical Dr. Seuss. Legend has it he took the beat of Mulberry Street’s verse from the thrum of the ship’s engine on a long voyage home from Europe. That beat would go on to power his books for another five decades.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938)
If this were the only book that he’d ever written, it would be enough to make the name of Dr. Seuss immortal.