The Creator of Horton, Thneeds, and Truffula Trees
THE first time I visited Theodor Seuss Geisel at his home in La Jolla, Calif., he was in the throes of resolving a plot tangle for the next of his yearly books for children aged three to 93. This one involved how to prevent a despicable character called the Grinch from completing his diabolical scheme to steal Christmas from all the Whos in Who-ville.It was early winter of 1957 and I had been assigned to write an article on Dr. Seuss for the old Saturday Evening Post. His colorful zany books had a dedicated following in families from coast to coast who bought about 10,000-20,000 copies of each new title. But Dr. Seuss had not yet become a household word, and had never before been profiled in a major magazine. He told me he had just finished the most difficult book assignment he had ever undertaken - writing and illustrating a beginning reader using only 223 words of one or two syllables from a prescribed list. He had thought the assignment from Houghton Mifflin and Random House would be a cinch. He would write a book that six-year-olds would want to read like crazy and prove that the reason "Why Johnny Can't Read" was that Johnny's reader wasn't readable. He would have nothing to do with the dull primers about Dick and Jane. When he submitted a story line about scaling the peaks of Everest at 60 degrees below zero, the editor warned that although it sounded truly exciting, "scaling" or "peaks" or "Everest" or "degrees" or even "sixty" weren't on the list, nor was there a Salamagoox nor a Yuzz-A-Ma-Tuzz anywhere to be found. After six months of fruitless staring at the word list, Geisel was ready to give up. Then there emerged from his jumble of sketches a raffish cat wearing a battered stovepipe hat. Geisel checked his list - both hat and cat were on it. Gradually he worked himself out of one literary dead end after another to complete the reader. The rest is history. "The Cat in the Hat" was accepted by almost every primary school and kindergarten in the country, and along with its bookstore edition, sold 500,000 copies the first year. Dr. Seuss and Random House developed a beginners book company to continue with more Seuss readers, plus those by other authors. Dr. Seuss quickly became a household w ord. Solving the Grinch dilemma presented a different problem, and the answer appeared to Geisel one day just before one of our several interview sessions: The Grinch, as he hauled away his sled with all the things he thought meant Christmas, heard the Whos back in Who-ville singing a merry song. He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming - it came just the same even without the gifts and food. A repentant Grinch realized something he hadn't before. "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. "Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!" So he whizzed back to Who-ville with his sled full of stolen toys and food and even carved the "roast beast" for the Christmas dinner. Visiting with Ted Geisel over a week's period, I not only got more than enough information for my article, but discovered one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. At work in his office overlooking the Pacific, which he could see through the strips of trial drawings and verses taped on the windows, Geisel was intent and driven as he agonized over the best way to express an idea. But after shutting the office door at 5:30 each day, he would be his cheerful, fun-loving, sometimes mischievous self. Th ough shy in public, he could be a riot among friends. When after-dinner conversation would swing around to endless tales about his friends' marvelous children and grandchildren, Geisel, who had no children of his own, would interrupt to tell about "Chrysanthemum-Pearl," his precious (imaginary) child who could "whip up the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate frosting and flaming Roman candles," or could "carry 1,000 stitches on one needle while making long red underdrawers for her Uncle Terwilliger." After a number of false career starts, Geisel had found his niche as a writer and artist of fanciful children's books such as "Horton Hatches the Egg," a story about a loyal, lovable elephant who gets conned by Mayzie the Lazy Bird into sitting on her egg. Horton finally gets the last word when the egg hatches into an Elephant-Bird, with ears and tail and trunk. Or "Horton Hears a Who," in which the same elephant protects the microcosmic inhabitants of a kingdom that exists on a speck of dust, until they are saved from being boiled in a Beezle-Nut stew by the smallest of all the Whos - "For a person's a person, no matter how small." Or "Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose," who is victimized by an inconsiderate assortment of free-loading friends nesting in his antlers. Geisel was the son of a Springfield, Mass., city superintendent of parks, who allowed his family to play with the animals at the local zoo. He completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, and then started, but never completed, a doctorate at Oxford University in the 1920s. He tried his hand at drawing cartoons for magazines, created ads for Standard Oil of New Jersey, including the "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" insecticide campaign, and later worked as political cartoonist for New York's controv ersial newspaper, PM. When his first book, "And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street," was published in 1937 (after 20 rejections), he gave up a lofty salary and New York living to become a children's author in La Jolla. Geisel wrote his books to entertain children (and adults), and to help those emerging in the "Why Johnny Can't Read" era learn to read. He also wanted to leave them with something at the end of his stories to think about. He considered "preaching" to children a cardinal sin, yet he always managed to implant a moral lesson in his books, though usually artfully disguised. In some books, with underlying subjects the liberal Ted Geisel felt strongly about, such as the arms race (The Butter Battle Book) and r uining the environment (The Lorax), his message was not veiled. There is no doubt that Geisel himself was the first small child for whom he wrote. He never tried to scare children to gain an audience, a la Disney. And he never talked down to children, but always considered them as equals. He looked out on the world from a child's viewpoint. By the time we met in 1957, he had been awarded a Legion of Merit for producing and directing indoctrination films while an Army officer serving in Hollywood during World War II. He also had won two Academy Awards for documentaries, and had dreamed up the character of Gerald McBoing-Boing. Gerald's first words were "boing, boing" instead of "da-da" or "ma-ma"; the story was written as a satire on parents who fear that a child's slowness in learning to speak indicates dimwittedness. During his lifetime, Geisel, who passed on recently, wrote 47 books, which sold 200 million copies and were translated into 20 languages. Television adaptations of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Lorax" remain perennial favorites. He also received seven honorary doctorates before he began to refuse them. In 1984 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize "for his contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents." When I ran into Ted Geisel a few years ago at an event in Austin, Texas, he dug into a briefcase to show me some original drawings for a book soon to be published that he thought would interest me, knowing I wrote about the environment. He enthusiastically began outlining his plot: A greedy entrepreneur - the Once-ler - cuts down all the Truffula Trees to manufacture Thneeds (a "Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need"), despite warnings from The Lorax, a small animal resembling a gopher, who speaks for the trees. After pollution from the Thneeds factory devastates the land, all the Truffula Trees are hacked down. Eventually every bird and animal and even the Lorax has gone away, and the Once-ler lives alone in a boarded-up tower beside a small pile of rocks that the Lorax had left beh ind. On it is inscribed one word: UNLESS. When I received a copy of the book from Ted Geisel a few months later, I saw that "The Lorax" had a message that could be the basis for solving the world's environmental (and many other) problems. The chastened Once-ler tosses the last Truffula seed to a little boy, telling him to plant it, give it clean water, feed it fresh air, and grow a forest so the Lorax and his friends could come back. He now understands the meaning of that word UNLESS: Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. In 1986, on his 82nd birthday, an interviewer asked Geisel to assess his life's greatest satisfaction: "I think I proved to a number of million kids that reading is not a disagreeable task," he answered. "And without talking about teaching, I think I have helped kids laugh in schools as well as at home. That's about enough, isn't it?" More than enough. When he sent me that copy of "The Lorax" long ago, he inscribed it: "to the Once-ler Slayer ... with many thanks for much," and he ended his accompanying note with: "I hope we'll meet again somewhere in some Truffula Tree." The "thanks for much" is a zillion times more the other way around, Ted Geisel. It comes from millions of children and adults all over the world who will indeed meet Dr. Seuss in the Truffula Trees of their thoughts as they remember his subtle, lasting lessons and the delights of his books.