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.
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
This marked the author’s return to writing children’s books after service in the U.S. and the European theater in World War II — service that led to two Academy Awards for documentary filmmaking. After Lieutenant Colonel Geisel was back from the war, Dr. Seuss returned to the drawing board with his usual Seussian insouciance, inventing a fanciful catalog of all the fish that might be in McElligot’s pool if only it connected to an underground river that led, in turn, to the sea. That might be would be a major feature of many more of his books.
Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (1948)
Dr. Seuss’ Aesopian fable is about a moose whose antlers become a rooming house for a whole menagerie of self-invited guests. The moral of the story — Don’t horn in where you’re not welcome — is atypical of Dr. Seuss’ usual open-arms policy. Even the kindest grandfather has his grumpy days.
If I Ran a Zoo (1950)
In which the young hero daydreams of going ”to the far-away Mountains of Tobsk/Near the River of Nobsk, and I’ll bring back an Obsk,/A sort of a kind of a Thing-a-ma-Bobsk.” The Obsk is only one of a zooful of alternatives to your workaday lions and monkeys.
Horton Hears a Who! (1954)
One of those rare sequels that is even better than its great original, which was 1940’s Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton the kindly elephant hears an SOS from the inhabitants of the invisible village of Who-ville located on a speck of dust. Horton helps as much as he can, but finally it is the very tiniest Who of them all whose voice saves the day. The moral of this story? Clearly: every vote counts!
The Cat in the Hat (1957)
The fun way to start reading. This book, and those that followed in Dr. Seuss’ Beginner Books series, were the beginning of the end for the ”See Spot run! Funny, funny Spot!” era of primers. Other high points of the series are The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Green Eggs and Ham, and the philosophical treatise, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, which poses the question, ”How much water can fifty-five elephants drink?”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)
The Grinch is an anti-Santa Claus who visits little old Who-ville on Christmas Eve and takes away all the toys and the holiday dinner and stuffs them up the chimney. Like Scrooge before him, the Grinch is finally redeemed by the spirit of Christmas — but it’s his mean moments that he’s known for.
The Lorax (1971)
In which Lorax, an ecological crusader, tries to save the endangered Truffula Tree from the depredations of the greedy, polluting Once-lers. Believe it or not, grinches of the lumbering town of Laytonville, Calif., made a serious effort in 1989 to ban this book from the Laytonville second-grade required reading list, on the basis that it was unfair to the local Once-lers of the timber industry. In real life, as in Dr. Seuss, the grinches lost, and their children can still read The Lorax.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)
Dr. Seuss’s commencement address to alumni of all schools, from nursery to post-grad, and thus destined to be a perennial best-seller at this time of year. (It’s on the list again.) An excerpt herewith: ”Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.”
Dr. Seuss’ grades? Straight A‘s.