It was the late 1950s, and he put the fun back in reading when he booted Dick and Jane out of my neighborhood. To me, he was (and still is) the wizard of words, the "glorious and gandorious" great-uncle of tongue twisters.
To many adults who have since become parents, he's a beloved household icon. His work has thrilled more young bookworms than even he could have imagined. And nobody could imagine things quite like Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.
His influence is so awesome, in fact, that today - Geisel's birthday - is designated "Cat in the Hat Day." Endorsing the holiday, the National Education Association suggests we celebrate by reading to a child this evening.
Starting in 1937, when he wrote and illustrated "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," Geisel found his niche churning out tales of the weird and the whimsical, populating them with squawking fish and top-hatted cats. Even today, few other children's authors can tickle a four-year-old funny bone as swiftly as Dr. Seuss.
Which is why it's hard to believe that this creator of nerkles and nerds had no kids of his own. Yet he penned 47 children's books, selling more than 100 million copies in more than a dozen languages.
Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Mass. His father was a brewer who ran a zoo during Prohibition - a zoo that undoubtedly provided endless fodder for young Geisel's fantasies. (Geisel, incidentally, coined the term "nerd" in "If I Ran the Zoo.")
He began his career drawing cartoons for magazines, but by the late 1950s "Dr. Seuss" was producing nearly two children's books a year. Delighting young baby boomers and their parents, "Horton Hears a Who" was published in 1954, followed by "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat" in 1957.
"I like nonsense," Geisel once said. "It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope."
But as every fan discovers, Geisel's "nonsense" isn't just for kids. His rhymes have reason. His stories are laced with mature messages and illuminating parables. "The Butter Battle Book," for example, tackles the atomic age. Classic characters - including the uproarious Cat in the Hat - take risks and get into big trouble, yet find innovative ways to redeem themselves and straighten things up. ("I always pick up my playthings," sniffed the Cat in the Hat.)
Dealing with such characters, we learn, occasionally tests one's character. Throughout adulthood, after all, there are many hills to climb - and, yes, kooks to reckon with.
In 1990, a year before he died, Geisel published "Oh, the Places You'll Go!", an inspirational title that quickly became a popular gift for high school and college graduates as well as some middle-aged geezers embarking on new career paths. And who could imagine a wiser, wittier mentor than Seuss to light our way?
"You'll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You'll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life's
a Great Balancing Act."
* Cynthia La Ferle is a nationally published journalist and essayist in Royal Oak, Mich. Illustration and excerpt from "The Cat in the Hat" and "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Seuss. TM and copyright 1957, 1990 and renewed 1985 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.