Oh, the places he took us!
SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — "You are the guy who'll decide where to go."
A visitor to this city might expect that Dr. Seuss line to spring to mind at any intersection. Or to find himself watching for on ramps to the Hoober-Bloob Highway. Or to smile, at least, at the long shadow of a minivan bearing one of those absurdly large Thule roof boxes.
By the time he reaches the heart of town, a visitor with any Seussian sensibilities can pick up on the local aura - and who isn't familiar with at least part of the considerable canon of Theodor Seuss Geisel, with its cadenced rhymes and its way-out places and faces?
"The most incredible cast of characters that ever came out of one mind," says Anita Silvey, a former children's book publisher at Houghton Mifflin and author of the forthcoming guide "100 Best Books for Children." "He's truly in a league by himself."
Dr. Seuss, political cartoonist turned child-charmer, was born here March 2, 1904. That makes 2004 a Seussentennial year, as Random House puts it. And that means you can expect to see an even greater than usual number of cats in red-and-white-striped hats from coast to coast - and not just that dubious celluloid version. The publisher's 40-plus-city Imagination Tour, with live performances based on the author's life and art, kicked off Jan. 3 in New York. It reaches Boston Friday before heading west to Springfield Saturday and Sunday (see www.seussville.com).
The stopover in this city of 150,000 people should, of course, have special meaning. Seuss's grandparents lived on the street from which he took the name for his 1937 debut book, "To Think That I Saw It on Mul- berry Street." He grew up at 74 Fairfield Street, in an ordinary-looking house that is now privately owned. Still, at least some of the populace may need to bone up on local lore.
On a recent weekday, Springfield was single-digit cold, with road salt dusting a main drag lined with specialty markets, furniture stores, and nail salons.
At Forest Park, which includes the zoo (closed in January) that was frequented by the young Seuss, an attendant knew about Mulberry Street, but not Fairfield, only a few blocks away. A Walgreen's manager in the same neighborhood thumbed through a pocket atlas before polling some customers about the street's location. A police officer was fairly certain it was off Garfield (it is).
And what about the children of this city - a place that an outsider might expect to be real-life Whoville?
"He means a lot," says Helene, a bookish 16-year-old. "I used to read Dr. Seuss in school, at home. I remember making green eggs in fourth or fifth grade."
That youthful take appears to be almost universal and enduring, says Judith Washburn, a child-development expert and professor of education at Cal State, Los Angeles. Dr. Washburn teaches reading methods to future teachers.
"At the beginning of the quarter I often ask students to think back on their childhood and share with the class what was their favorite book growing up," she says. "I'd say between a third and a half of the class generally mentions Dr. Seuss, usually 'The Cat in the Hat' or 'Green Eggs and Ham.' "
In Springfield, it may be a matter of a local hero just being taken for granted, at times even by schoolchildren.
"They have to be constantly reminded," says Reggie Wilson, manager of the Forest Park branch of the Springfield Library. Mr. Wilson says there is considerable civic pride in Springfield - for Seuss and his role in raising the literacy level here as well as for less celebrated local residents such as abolitionist John Brown.
Others maintain that Seuss fans should guard against becoming jaded by what some view as perhaps too much commercialization of his work. "It doesn't change the magnificence of 'Horton Hatches the Egg,' " says Ms. Silvey. "If you go back to the books, that wonder is still there."
Certainly Seuss enjoyed planting reminders of Springfield. He stocked up on imagery during his years in this city and trickled it into his work. Consider the armory on Howard Street, so much like the main character's castle in "The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins."
For less obvious examples, a one-room exhibit near the two-year-old Dr. Seuss National Memorial and Sculpture Garden includes a display of old local photos juxtaposed with Seuss illustrations.
The red motorcycles ridden by policemen in "Mulberry Street" are clearly Indian Motorcycles (once built here). The Deegel trout in "McElligot's Pool"? Named after the local hatchery run by the Deegel family. The Thneeds factory from "The Lorax"? It's based on an old gas works - with a remarkable number of smokestacks - down by the Connecticut River.
The new sculpture garden in the museum quadrangle is filled with bronze castings of Horton, Yertle the Turtle, and other Seuss characters (and one of the author). They were sculpted by Seuss's stepdaughter Lark Grey Dimond-Cates.
The park drew a half-million visitors in its first year, according to Marianne Gambaro, director of public relations for Springfield Museums. On this day, Nathan Jones, a student at Western New England College, and Virginia Hatton oSmith College, stroll the bitter-cold grounds.
Mr. Jones is a "Cat in the Hat" man. Ms. Hatton says she's a fan of "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" A friend of her mother's - a schoolteacher - is planning a visit from Oregon. Seuss is still selling Springfield, helping readers decide where to go.