28 February 2018
By Sarah Rabin Spira
Theodor Geisel chose the pen name “Dr. Seuss” because his father wanted him to be a doctor. (Seuss is his mother’s birth name.) How lucky for us that he pursued a career in art and children’s literature, forever changing the way that early-reader books were written.
Before Dr. Seuss, early-reader books for children were didactic, spare and, frankly, boring. Dick and Jane aren’t nearly as fun as Thing 1 and Thing 2. Geisel wrote his 16th book, “The Cat in the Hat,” to make learning to read more fun for children, using 236 of the words from a list his publisher said a first-grader could read. He later wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” to win a bet with his editor, Bennett Cerf, that he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words.
Geisel also invented words to incorporate a rhyming rhythm (“wocket” with “pocket” and “nooth grush” with “tooth brush” for example). The silliness of the words underlies an essential seriousness about children’s literature: They are better for teaching vocabulary than any conversation or flash cards ever could be.