Eiland's Online English Materials

theodore geisel

Children's Literature... a BRIEF History: Dr. Seuss (the short version)

Dr. Seuss Theodore Geisel has been a household word for nearly 70 years by creating a library of literature specifically designed to instruct, enlighten and entertain children and their parents through the use of imaginative imagery. His imagination has not only sponsored numerous copiers but also encouraged otherwise reluctant subjects to further their encounters with literature. It is Geisel's own imagination that has fueled a machine that has sold over 200 million books, launched a publishing house and changed the rules concerning how children are taught to read. Originally a writer and cartoonist for advertisements, World War II Army films and postwar polemics, Ted Geisel became a premier writer for children's literature reluctantly. Ted was always impulsive... he fell into his drawing career on impulse and he got into writing children's books accidentally. But like everything Ted did, it seemed to work. Since 1937, Dr. Seuss has added 45 prescriptions to his original formula. Nothing in the history of books for children comes within hailing distance of this phenomenon of humorous and instructive work.

Ted Geisel traveled extensively, months at a time, collecting adventures and stories. It was on his way back from one of these trips in 1936 that he experienced yet another life-changing experience. Geisel came upon his first children’s rhyme while returning from Europe on the steamship Kungsholm. Unable to sleep because of the high seas, vodka in hand, he began writing a story about a boy who embellishes his walk home from school. Dr. Seuss’ Mulberry Street sold moderately well at a time when children's books were falling out of favor, especially for the children who had to read them. Indeed, the advent of television caused illiteracy rates to soar during the fifties and sixties. The children's books of the day were the same ones that Ted had read as a child in the early 1900s. The children's books of the day were very simplistic in that the children did not act like children at all. They were obedient and very clean and so nice and not at all the way children really were. With the "Why Johnny Can’t Read" controversy in the national spotlight, Ted Geisel and Random House publisher Bennett Cerf created Beginner Books, a concentrated effort to create stories children would find interesting enough to read, yet would teach children fundamental vocabulary.

Mulberry Street was only the beginning. Bennett challenged Ted to write a book using only 225 words. He accepted the challenge. It was not easy. He read the list 40 times and got more and more discouraged each time. Desperate, he decided to write a story around the first two words that rhymed...Cat and Hat. The Cat in the Hat liquidated Dick and Jane forever, its 225 basic words persuading the wee beginner that reading could be fun. Released in the spring in 1957, The Cat In The Hat became a national phenomenon within three years and sold nearly one million copies. The book is available in 27 different languages. 20 years after his first children's book, Theodore Geisel became Random House’s best-selling author. Dr. Seuss was hailed as the savior of children's literacy. The Cat In The Hat, based on 225 words, was so successful, Bennett Cerf bet Ted Geisel that he could not write a beginner book using only 50 words. Ted worked on the new book for a solid year, writing and rewriting. The result was the most popular and best-selling Dr. Seuss book ever: Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham was not only a phenomenal success, it also launched a flurry of best-selling books, more than one per year, which have become classics in children's literature.

  • Hop On Pop
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Redfish, Bluefish
  • The Sneetches
  • I Am Not Going To Get Up Today
  • Fox In Socks
  • Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!
  • There's A Wocket In My Pocket
  • How The Grinch Stole Christmas

Everything was laid out in those books to be as easily read as possible: The placement of words, vocabulary that was used. The pictures carefully illustrated everything that was said so a child could figure out what the words meant from the picture. Geisel had specific rules for writing: "In my books, action on a page goes from left to right to train the eye to follow the written text in the same way as the illustration, and it would encourage the child to turn the page to go on to find out what was going to happen next" ("Dr. Seuss"). As editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, Ted Geisel issued a series of guidelines for authors and illustrators for creating books for children. Illustrations had to be simple and full of action. The vocabulary had to adhere to the age limitations. Noted authors such as Roald Dahl and Truman Capote tried to write for beginner books, but could not adhere to the guidelines. Another aspect of Dr. Seuss books was Ted's life perspective... his ideas and viewpoints were becoming more clear in his work. People were used to children's books being wholesome and moral, but not necessarily political. His wife encouraged Ted to write a morality tale on pollution and greed, "The Lorax", a serious departure from the usual Seussian antics. But not everyone was favorably impressed. Sales of The Lorax were sluggish for a Dr. Seuss book. According to Mrs. Geisel, "The idea of doing a book for kids with a message that is this dramatic and almost dogmatic, propagandistic if you will, really kind of disturbed some people" ("Dr. Seuss").

In 1975, Ted Geisel experienced an affliction that would seriously jeopardize his livelihood. His eyesight began to fail him, making work impossible. Several years of surgeries followed before his vision improved. And when he was better, he began to notice his world in a new way. He immediately sat down with pen and paper and created a new book to celebrate his newly restored vision, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut. He dedicated his book to his eye surgeon.

By this time in his life, Ted Geisel was nearing his 80’s. His health was failing and he was often tired. He survived a heart attack and was treated for cancer. He went out with his wife a lot: in some ways, she kept him alive. He wrote fewer beginner books and began focusing on books for older children, including more socio-politically bent titles such as Yertle the Turtle In The Butter Battle Book two sides push each other to the brink of catastrophic war over a disagreement over which side of the bread should be buttered. Ted also reflected the indignities of getting old in a comedic book designed for older folks but written in the same witty format as are beginner books. Released as a book for adults, You're Only Old Once topped the New York Times bestseller list. In a year, over one million copies had been sold.

The reality was that Dr. Seuss was nearing an end, and Ted Geisel must have known that, for the last book that he published was an ode to life and exploration. He was quite ill most of the time. As Ted Geisel retreated to his studio, the idea for a book that would become his farewell message emerged. Oh The Places You'll Go reflected Ted's life and its optimistic adventurous outlook. He celebrated his lifelong interest in education and literacy and the impact it could have on giving a person the freedom to direct his own life. Mrs. Geisel: "Ted always had faith in the potential for children. They have everything to look forward to, and they have opportunities ahead of them." ("Dr. Seuss"). On September 24, 1991, Theodore Geisel died in his studio a few feet from his drawing board and his creatures. He was 87 years old. "Dear Dr. Seuss. I am sorry you’re dead. I wish you weren't dead. I really like your books. My favorite is The Cat In The Hat. Please send some information. Yours truly, Dean" ("Dr. Seuss").

Every year on Theodore Geisel's birthday, classrooms across America celebrate Dr. Seuss and his books. And today still, Ted's message is passed on to children all over the world. Year after year, Dr. Seuss pumps fresh air into the world of children's books, wacking with the slapstick of comic fantasy the backside of whatever is stuffy or over instructive or mannered or self-consciously whimsical.

There is no telling what the future is for Dr. Seuss. There is no telling what impact translations of his work will have on the future generations. Ted knew that once he was gone he would no longer have control of his work and things may change. Dr. Seuss once said, "When I'm gone, things will be different because the Creator will be gone. There are many ways to look at this…" ("Dr. Seuss"), but there is no doubt that for generations past and generations to come, Theodore Geisel, Dr. Seuss has shared his life through his work.


"Dr. Seuss." Biography. Narrated by Harry Smith. Produced by Peter Terriel. New York: A & E Networks. 2003.

Geisel, Theodore and Audrey S. Geisel. Green Eggs and Ham. New York: Random House, 1960

_______ The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971

_______ Oh the Places You’ll Go. New York: Random House, 1986

Seuss, Dr. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. New York: Random House, 1937

________ The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

________ El gato en el sombrero, by Dr. Seuss, Carlos Rivera, (translator) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

________ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

________ If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss (pseud). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Seuss, Dr. and A. S. Geisel. I Can Read With My Eyes Shut. New York: Random House, 1978.

© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: August 5, 2006