“I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!” So says the inimitable Horton, the main character in ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’, the fourth book that Dr. Seuss both wrote and illustrated and, of all his books, my personal favorite.
When it comes to books for the young, it is impossible to ignore Theodore Seuss Geisel, the author known to millions of readers as Dr. Seuss. His work revolutionized the whole concept of creating books that would entice the young to read. He began as an illustrator until a chance encounter on a street brought him and his first solo work, ‘And To Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street’. into the arms of a publisher (Vanguard). Seuss went on to have a long and distinguished career, writing and/or illustrating eighty-three books between 1931 and 1986, twenty-five of which are on the Publishers’ Weekly (PW) list of the ‘All Time Best Selling Children’s Books in America’. The number of his titles on this list (a book must sell a minimum of 750,000 copies) dwarfs every other children’s author. The list itself, (you can find it on-line) is like a ‘who’s who’ of children’s literature but, as you peruse the titles on the list, you will be hard pressed to find any other author with more than two or three titles to their credit. The Seuss sales from this list alone top 83 million copies, and that doesn’t include the other sixty-eight books he wrote or illustrated, making Dr. Seuss and Random House, his main publisher, a fortune.
If one is drawn to collecting Seuss books, especially his first editions (i.e. first printings of his books), one needs two things: oodles of cash and the indispensable ‘Guide to Identification’ of Seuss books written by Helen & Marc Younger and Dan Hirsch. It’s not that this guide is infallible – no collecting guide ever is, but the historic difficulties associated with identifying Seuss firsts are met with a wealth of research and a format that’s easy to use. Despite a rather soft market for books in general over the past few years, the early Seuss books, if in their original dust jackets, still command extremely high prices compared to other children’s books – well into the thousands of dollars.
The book that really propelled Seuss into fame and fortune was his ‘The Cat and the Hat’, published in 1957. Although Seuss was at that time a contracted author for Random House, he had a personal friend working at Houghton Mifflin, a rival publisher that specialized in sales to schools. His friend at Mifflin was dismayed at the poor literary quality of early readers (if you know about Dick and Jane you’ll know what he meant) and challenged Seuss to produce a book that would: delight a young reader so that they’d want to read it, use limited vocabulary and feature compelling illustrations.
An agreement between the two companies was required in order that Seuss could work on a book for a rival company. The deal allowed both companies to publish the final work simultaneously. It was agreed that Houghton Mifflin would limit its pitch to school systems while Random House flogged the book to libraries and the public in general. Given the conservative nature and slow response to change often found within schools, not to mention an aggressive sales campaign by Random House, it is the Random House edition that took off, selling millions of copies. It is this edition that is identified in most guides as the ‘first edition’. However, according to a Seuss letter quoted in Philip Nel’s book ‘The Annotated Cat’, Houghton Mifflin actually published their edition several months in advance of the Random House, making it the true ‘first edition’, a fact not often recognized – it is even missed in the Youngers & Hirsch ‘Guide’. Nel reports that sales at Random House were so brisk that 12,000 copies were being printed every month in the year after its launch, a staggering number for a children’s book at the time – in fact, at any time. From that point on, every Seuss book published received great public fanfare and attention.
With the thirtieth anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s death but two years away, parents looking to get their young children reading will no doubt want to consider offering them some of the Seuss books. They may rely on ones they themselves enjoyed as youngsters, the best guide of all. But it’s not unreasonable to ask which of his many books are likely to pass the test of time, and be enjoyable to children growing up in a very different world than the one in which they were created?
This is not an easy question, and any answer will be highly subjective at best. Although the Publishers’ Weekly list is a good source, there are several on the list I wouldn’t recommend and a few not on the list that I would. Having already revealed my personal preference for the much older ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ is certainly my next favorite. It is Dr. Seuss’s number one best seller, making it on the PW list and deservedly so. As an aside, those who enjoy ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ might also love Robert Lopshire’s ‘Put Me in the Zoo’, which came out a year earlier than ‘Green Eggs’ and features a similarity in the rhyming scheme found in ‘Green Eggs’. ‘Put Me in the Zoo’ made the PW list and is a classic almost equal to the ‘Eggs’.
Of the very early Seuss books, ‘The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins’ (the 2nd book Suess both wrote and illustrated – not on the PW list) is one of my favorites, despite being written in prose rather than the kinds of verse for which Seuss later became famous. The plot is about a boy who, every time he removes his hat in the presence of the King, has another pop magically onto his head. Needles to say the King is unimpressed with a boy who shows him such a lack of respect. In many ways this story harkens back to older traditional fairy tales.
I think the Dr. Seuss ‘ABC’ book is still an excellent source for learning the alphabet, something rather indispensable for the beginning reader. Learning colors and counting are well represented with ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish’ and ‘Ten Apples Up On Top’ (written under the alias of Theo LeSieg – Seuss’s real name spelled backwards). Who doesn’t like ‘Hop On Pop’? If your children, like mine, gravitate towards naughty characters, ‘The Cat in the Hat’ is still sparkling, even if I personally don’t find it as wonderful as the three others mentioned in my last blog. At Christmas time there isn’t a better book to reinforce the true meaning of the season than ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Those who loved Horton and his egg will also love ‘Horton Hears a Who’, which didn’t make the PW list but is a lovely story of fortitude and caring. ‘Fox in Socks’ is still lots of fun as is ‘Oh Say Can You Say’, for those readers who love tongue twisters.
Another great idea was the Seuss book ‘My Book About Me’. It’s really a guided workbook for the very young to describe themselves on paper, a wonderful way to move from reading into a bit of writing. If you’re a collector of first printings, you’ll find this one particularly difficult to find, especially a copy that has little or no writing in it. For those with this interest, the main identification point is the lack of anything on the rear panel of the yellow boards.
The other enormous benefit that came with the success of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ was the creation of a whole new line of books, published by Random House and written by many of the most creative children’s authors in America. They all take inspiration from the ‘Cat’s’ ideals: interesting and engaging stories, colorful artwork and a limited vocabulary. Called the ‘Beginner Books’ the series was a real breakthrough in twentieth century children’s books and a series well worth further discussion in its own right.
So…I’ll be writing about the best in the ‘Beginner Books’ series in my next blog.