Many in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have experienced the books written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Theodor Seuss Geisel, born in Massachusetts and dying in California, was the subject of the May 2019 Brian Jay Jones biography named Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination.
(Brian Jay Jones, left, and Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Jones wrote the book Becoming Dr. Seuss).
As biographies go, Brian Jay Jones offers what feels like a rigorous treatment of the man that became Dr. Seuss. We see Theodor Seuss Geisel growing up in the northeastern United States during the period leading up to and through World War One, Prohibition, and through a college period where being of German ancestry and from a beer brewing family were not without difficulties in the United States. Dr. Seuss wasn’t a particularly studious college student, though he was capable when interested. We learn how Dr. Seuss grew up, some intent to become a teacher without the ambition for the work, and ultimately a path that led Seuss to use his unique drawing style as an advertisement man and political cartoonist.
(The biography Becoming Dr. Seuss among books written by Dr. Seuss).
In college at Dartmouth and in some advertisements and political cartoons drawn in his youth and through his time in the army during World War Two, Dr. Seuss struggled with drawing in racist and sexist stereotypes of the day. To his credit, Brian Jay Jones did not shy away from addressing the fact of these points in Theodor Seuss Geisel‘s background. When asked about this later in life, Dr. Seuss would acknowledge their existence and speak to the fact of there being objectionable things in addition to having matured and changed. Dr. Seuss was challenged from a feminist perspective, a Japanese American perspective, and generally from his early use of stereotypes in his material. As a children’s literary book writer, these subjects are raised through a general absence of female protagonists as well as in the book Horton Hears a Who! Read this Mental Floss depiction for more detail.
(Dr. Seuss holding a copy of his book The Cat in the Hat).
It was as a result of relationships during World War Two as a member of the United States Army that the children’s writer we know as Dr. Seuss really emerged. Seuss learned to write concise stories that moved action along quickly and concisely. In fact, his notion for not condescending to kids led to a pair of principles that should apply. First, the story should be “all meat and no filler.” Essentially, this meant that like a metaphoric train, a story for kids should ramp up like the sound of wheels on a train. At first things are slow like a train leaving a station. Within a short period of time, the motion of the wheels should be consistent and continuous.
(A United States Postal Service stamp for Dr. Seuss and some of his famous characters, circa 2004).
The second main principle for children’s books is that they should address some but not all the needs of a child. Not every story needs to include all or even most of the following needs of kids, but a story will not succeed if not addressing the following needs for security, to belong, to love and be loved, to achieve, to know, for aesthetic satisfaction, and/or for change. That list of seven items formed the basis of Dr. Seuss‘ books for children.
(Dr. Seuss‘ last book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, circa 1990).
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, aimed to write for children without condescending to them. In writing in the manner he did, Dr. Seuss meant to write for kids in a manner that treated them as emotionally fuller people than did books Seuss did not like, such as Dick and Jane books. Dr. Seuss believed in writing for people, and the last book he wrote, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, may be the best example of just such a book. The book is largely populated by people, and was the going away present to celebrate Theodor Seuss Geisel‘s career. The biography Becoming Dr. Seuss by Brian Jay Jones gave me what feels like a fair sense of who Theodor Seuss Geisel, that is Dr. Seuss, was. The narrative included as definitive a telling as I have seen. As a result, I give the book 4.25-stars on a scale of one-to-five stars.
Matt – Wednesday, June 19, 2019