The Creator of Horton, Thneeds, and Truffula Trees

Article excerpt

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 word.

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. Though 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. …