The Cat in the Hat. Green Eggs and Ham. The Lorax. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Oh, the Places You Will Go!
One or more of those titles could have easily triggered a childhood memory of colorful books or fun movies. Dr. Seuss is best known for authoring some of the most fantastical and most enduring children’s books of all time.
Dr. Seuss is a German-American whose real name is Theodor Geisel. Geisel was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. All of his grandparents were immigrants. He attended Dartmouth College and was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the editor-in-chief for the humor magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. He started using the pen name Dr. Seuss, adopting his mother’s maiden name, while writing for the magazine. He started doing postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford. He left Oxford without a doctorate degree, as he had intended, and started working as an illustrator/cartoonist for publications such as Life and Vanity Fair.
Geisel and his wife, Helen Palmer, got married in 1927. It was Palmer who had convinced him to pursue a career in drawing. He supported himself and his wife through the Great Depression by creating advertising copies for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and many other companies.
After a trip to Europe, Geisel was inspired to write his first published poem, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book had initially been rejected by around 40 publishers, but after a chance meeting with a friend from Dartmouth, the manuscript was brought to Vanguard Press, where it was published. Geisel wrote four more books:The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), The King’s Stilts (1939), The Seven Lady Godivas (1939), and his second poetry book, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940).
During World War II, Geisel drew over 400 editorial cartoons for the New York City newspaper PM. These were later collected in a volume called Dr. Seuss Goes to War. The cartoons he drew criticized Hitler, Mussolini, as well as those who were strongly against the United States joining the war. Some of the cartoons also depicted racism against Jews and blacks and showed support for then-President Roosevelt.
Geisel devoted himself to writing children’s books after World War II. He and Helen moved to La Jolla in California. He wrote many of his classics in the ’50s: If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Horton Hears a Who! (1955), If I Ran the Circus(1956), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960).
After Life magazine published a report on child illiteracy in 1954, Geisel was challenged to write a book that “children can’t put down.” He was given a list of 348 words that first-graders should be able to recognize, and Geisel was able to use 236 in The Cat in the Hat. The book combined Geisel’s usual brand of whimsy, rhythm, and drawing style. The book became a hit both in the United States and abroad. Geisel went on to write more books with simplified vocabulary targeted toward younger children, known as Beginner Books.
Geisel died of oral cancer in September 1991 at La Jolla. Four years after his death, the University of California in San Diego renamed their University Library, Geisel Library, honoring Geisel’s contribution both to the university and to improving child literacy.
Throughout his career, Geisel received many honors such as the Caldecott Medal and the Newbery Medal. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Dartmouth College, in 1956. He was also awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his “contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents.”In 2004, the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award was established to honor American books for beginning readers (prekindergarten to second grade).
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