When Theodor Seuss Geisel was a child in Springfield, Mass., he had the kind of luck most kids only dream of: His father was in charge of the local zoo. Theodor could visit it whenever he liked and even go into some animals’ cages. When he grew up, he became a kind of zookeeper himself, the inventor and ringmaster of an everexpanding menagerie of fantastic comic creatures, including sneetches and ziffs and nerkles and preeps, the Cat in the Hat, the Lorax, and the Grinch who Stole Christmas. One of his early books was even called If I Ran the Zoo (1950).
Geisel, who died in his sleep Sept. 24 at age 87, became the beloved Dr. Seuss — author and illustrator of 47 books, which sold more than 200 million copies and were translated into 20 languages, and probably the person who had a greater influence on what children read and see than anybody in this century. His work has inspired not only contemporary children’s picture books but also children’s television. Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, and the Muppets are recognizably in the Seuss tradition. Their exaggerated anatomy and bright primary colors strongly recall his work, as does the inspired combination of laughter and learning on shows like Sesame Street.
The good doctor’s success, however, did not come easily. His first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), was rejected by 27 publishers — the more original a writer is, the longer it often takes to get into print. But readers, especially children, are usually quick to recognize genius. Mulberry Street was a hit and so were all its offspring; Dr. Seuss’ most recent book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990) has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 79 weeks.
In several of Dr. Seuss’ works, lively, instantly memorable verse and brilliant invention were combined with a contemporary message: The Lorax (1971) warned readers against environmental pollution; The Butter Battle Book (1984) mocked the arms race; and Horton Hears a Who! (1954) spoke out for the rights of small nations, declaring that ”a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
One of Seuss’ greatest gifts to children was a series of first-grade readers he wrote for Random House to replace the dreary ”Dick and Jane” type of story with its white middle-class suburban families, housewife mothers, and timid little girls. Such books as The Cat in the Hat (1957) and Fox in Socks (1965) made learning fun for kids from every kind of background and were widely imitated. But Seuss’ work appeals to all ages. My grandson, not yet 2, is a fan of Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which reverses the common attempts of parents to introduce a child to new foods; here it is the child who tries to convince the parent. (”Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?”) And in a doctor’s office last month, I saw a senior citizen chuckling over You’re Only Old Once! (1986), a comic account of a diagnostic hospital visit. Dr. Seuss did not leave any children of his own; but children — and adults — everywhere are his heirs.