Dr. Seuss wasn’t particularly fond of children. In fact, he was kind of afraid of them. Despite that curious fact, Theodor Seuss Geisel AKA Dr. Seuss AKA Theo LeSieg AKA Rosetta Stone, is perhaps the greatest author in children’s literature. You see, in the first half of the 20th century, children learned to read with instructional “primers”—reading textbooks—like Fun with Dick and Jane…and Alice and Jerry, Ant and Bee, Janet and John…
Are you sensing a pattern?
It was soul-crushing. Dr. Seuss took up the challenge to create “a story that first-graders can’t book down.” Using just over 200 words, paired with rich illustrations that enlarged the reader's experience, he created The Cat and the Hat—a book which launched the beginning reader genre as we know it and changed the landscape of early literacy instruction from rote memorization, to narrative, language and thinking skills.
March 2nd marks his 113th birthday, which we at the Houston Public Library, along with libraries and schools nationwide, celebrate annually as Read Across America Day. What makes Dr. Seuss so timeless, so compelling, so accessible, to 21st century readers of all ages?
"I don't write for children, I write for people,” he once said. “Once a writer starts talking down to kids, he's lost. Kids can pick up on that kind of thing." On that note, I’d like to introduce you to some of the lesser-known works of Dr. Seuss: the dark, the surreal, the risqué.
Seriously, folks: Dr. Seuss was one weird cat.
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T
As a child, I watched and re-watched a VHS recording of this strange movie until the picture and audio were patchy with static. As an adult, I learned I was one of very few. The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is a 1950s live-action movie musical written by Dr. Seuss. The majority of the movie takes place within the dream of Bartholomew Collins, a boy who hates his piano teacher and looks like he was drawn like Dr. Seuss. Pretty standard fare, right?
In Bart’s dream, his piano teacher is a maniacal demagogue, who is about to open the Terwilliger Institute. The Terwilliger Institute is a culmination of Dr. Terwilliger's “lifelong dream” to eliminate all instruments except the piano and have “500 hundred little boys! 5000 little fingers!” simultaneously playing an enormous keyboard. Minor crimes like drumming off-sync lead to disproportionate sentences in the Institute's dungeon, such as being trapped inside of an enormous drum forever.
Oh, but it gets weirder. Dr. T sings a delightful, high camp song about getting dressed in his fanciest clothes, including among other things, a “purple nylon girdle,” “gorgeous bright blue bloomers with the monkey feather cuffs,” and “undulating undies with the maribou frills.” After being imprisoned for fomenting insurrection, Bart and the heroic plumber Mr. Zablodowski escape from the dungeon and attempt to rescue Bart’s hypnotized mother. Dr. T and Mr. Zablodowski have a duel where the weapon is hypnotism, and then Dr. T, Mr. Zablodowski and Bart’s mother sing about picnicking. Also, there are roller-skating twins conjoined at the beard and a staircase to nowhere.
In the end, Dr. T is defeated by an atomic sound-catching potion.
“Is it atomic?” Dr. T asks, clutching his imaginary pearls in terror.
“Yes sir!” Bart cries with manic glee, brandishing a smoking brown glass bottle. “VERY atomic!”
Yes, this children’s movie ends with the protagonist threatening to detonate an atomic weapon. For some reason, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T did not do well with its Eisenhower-era audience and fell into tragic obscurity.
Artwork and Cartoons—Political and Not So Political
Before his rise to fame as children’s author, Dr. Seuss worked in advertising and was a captain in the Army during World War II. Much of his advertising work can be found in Theodore Seuss Geisel: the Early Years. He also painted--large, dazzlingly colorful canvases that weren’t available for public eyes until after his death. Those paintings are collected in The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss.
His WWII editorial cartoons are reproduced in the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War. Many of them are troubling, to put it mildly. Dr. Seuss long-advocated for peace and his work reflects his belief that all human beings deserve dignity and self-sovereignty. He took “America First” isolationists to task for their callous attitudes towards “foreign children” and for what he viewed as complicity in war crimes.
But he was a product of his time, and American xenophobia is not a new phenomenon. Dr. Seuss’ depiction of Hideki Tojo, the Japanese military leader, looks like a hybrid of Mr. Monopoly and Fu Manchu. His drawings of everyday Japanese-Americans are chocked full of the incendiary, Yellow Peril racism that culminated in the internment of tens of thousands of US citizens. In one cartoon, a wall of Japanese Americans stretching from Washington to California are lined up at a booth to receive packets of TNT, while one figure looks hopefully toward the ocean with a telescope. The caption? “Waiting for the signal from home…” Dr. Seuss eventually had a change of heart and retroactively edited some truly heinous lines from his early works.
Some of his work from this time is purely informational, like the gem "This Is Ann—She Drinks Blood." Illustrated by Seuss and written by fellow titan of children’s literature Munro Leaf, author of the classic The Story of Ferdinand, this handy booklet is full of tips and tricks to defeat malaria. Children’s authors Seuss, Munro and PD Eastman, along with Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame, also collaborated on a series of cartoon shorts for the Army called "Private Snafu," now freely available in the public domain.
Books for Adults: The Seven Lady Godivas and You’re Only Old Once
Dr. Seuss wrote two books for adults in his career. The first was a 1939 book called The Seven Lady Godivas, which purports to finally tell the real story of Lady Godiva and serves as testament to the fact that you can’t hit every ball out of the park. Lady Godiva is, of course, the aristocrat who, legend has it, rode naked on horseback through her medieval town to protest unfair taxes. According to Seuss, there was not one, but seven Lady Godivas, the daughters of Lord Godiva, and they were naked not in a singular act of rebellion, but...like…all the time. Riding a horse. Picking a lock. Performing manual labor. In the snow. Despite the nudity on every page, the book is the least titillating thing I’ve ever seen. Reading it inspires the same squeamishness as the moment you first connect the dots as to how, exactly, you came to be on this earth.
To add to the unpleasantness, the story is one long Shaggy Dog joke, the purpose of which is a series of extraordinarily groan-inducing horse puns. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Don’t put the cart before the horse. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. On and on, each sister’s story is just a lead up to a different cliché about horses. Anyone who knows me knows I love puns, but even I think this is too much. The only one that’s missing is “don’t beat a dead horse,” which is the most applicable of all.
The Seven Lady Godivas bombed, selling only 500 copies, and the experience put Dr. Seuss off of writing for adults for more than four decades. In 1986, he finally got back on the horse—sorry, I warned you—and published You’re Only Old Once. Inspired by a recent bout of illnesses and hospitalizations, You’re Only Old Once winds the reader through a medical maze, filled with doctors and machines poking and prodding, pill cocktails, and mountains of paperwork that ends with the patient exactly where he started. It was an immediate best-seller.
Since his death in 1991, millions of families world-wide have shared his books. This March 2nd, we hope you'll join us in celebrating not only the standard Seuss, but the hidden works as well.
--Carrie T., Central Library