Goodbye Mother Goose. Hello Dr. Seuss.
October 2, 2013
The article in the 1954 issue of Life Magazine was damning and daunting to say the least. After all, it had been written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Hersey, and bore the title: “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R. A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading.”
Hersey obviously didn’t like Dick and Jane or even Spot and Puff.
That’s no way to teach kids to enjoy reading, he said.
But that’s what kids were reading, and, he feared, that’s why kids were losing their interest in reading.
It might not be a crisis.
But it was certainly a concern.
William Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, called Theodore Geisel into his office and gave him a challenge. After all, Geisel had attracted some attention in the literary world as an illustrator and writer of children’s books. Most knew him as Dr. Seuss.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” Spaulding said. “Write a story that first-graders can’t put down.”
“I can do that,” Geisel said.
“But here’s the catch.”
There is always a catch.
“I want the story to be written with only 225 distinct words and they must come from this listing,” Spaulding said. He handed Geisel a page with 348 words that had been selected from a standard first grader’s vocabulary list.
No other words could be included.
“Can you do it?”
No problem, he thought.
Then came the problem.
Geisel sat down to write a nice little story about a King Cat and a Queen Cat.
Queen, however, wasn’t on the acceptable list of words.
What to do now?
Geisel leaned back and began mentally working his way through the 348 words.
He eyes stopped on “hat.”
Hat’s a good word, he thought.
Besides, Hat rhymes with Cat.
So began the writing of The Cat in the Hat.
The book took him nine months.
And even then, he failed the challenge.
Every word came from the list of 348.
But he couldn’t hold the story to 225 distinct words.
He used 236.
Spaulding forgave him anyway. Why not? Within three years, The Cat in the Hat had sold more than a million copies.
In 1960, Theodore Geisel faced another “write to fit” challenge. This one had money attached. Not much, but enough to make it interesting.
Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, wagered that the noted Dr. Seuss wouldn’t be able to write a book with fifty or fewer distinct words.
Geisel said he believed he could.
The bet was for fifty dollars, and Dr. Seuss produced Green Eggs and Ham.
It became his best-selling book.
The story required exactly fifty words.
Every one counted.
It didn’t need any more.
Theodore Geisel always said: “Children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth.”
That was then.
This is now.
Nothing has changed.