Pure Nonsense

An Interview with Brian Jay Jones

One of the things that he keeps saying over and over in there is: you can't fool a kid, they will see right through you. They're the toughest audience to write for. Adults you can fool with verbal gymnastics. Kids don't care about that. They will see right through you. It's got to be all about getting their attention, talking to them directly, giving them good books that they deserve to have. That was huge: to have somebody saying kids deserve great books.

The other major thing he realizes at that time comes from a meeting he has with his agent. She says to him, "The soldiers have come back from World War II and they're raising families now out in the suburbs." She didn't ever use the words “baby boom,” but he and his agent were tuned into this. They knew there was a new generation, they knew there were young kids coming up — a lot of them — and parents wanted books for these kids to read. And he had the advantage of having published by that point 12 books. None of them were huge bestsellers, but he had a name.

OR: When does he finally become Dr. Seuss full time, so to speak?

Jones: The moment in which he finally becomes Doctor Seuss is sparked by an article in Life Magazine by the famed journalist John Hersey. He asked questions we still ask today. Why don't kids want to read? Why are they distracted? He argued that one of the reasons kids don't like to read is because the Dick and Jane reading primers then used in classrooms were awful. No kid wants to read about Dick and Jane and their lives of quiet desperation. We need to do something to make reading fun. If only Doctor Seuss would draw a Dick and Jane Book!

Seuss doesn't end up drawing that. But another publisher of children's books calls him and says, "I want you not to just draw a reading primer. I want you to write and draw a reading primer."

The challenge he issued was: write me a bestseller that a first grader can't put down. The catch was that he had to use a teacher-approved word list of about 350 words. There are very few plurals on it, there are no possessives on it, there's not a lot of adjectives. It's primarily a lot of simple nouns and verbs.

Seuss takes this word list home and he stares at it for a year. He's been taught by Capra: make sure you've got a plot. Make sure you can do something fun and fast-paced. There's nothing fun or fast-paced on this list. Finally he says, "I resolved that I was going to go through it one last time and take the first two words that rhymed and that was going to be my story." Fortunately he didn't go with the first two words, because those would have yielded The Tall Ball. Not the stuff legends are made of.

But he does find cat and hat.

Once he gets his title and his subject it takes him another year to write the book because, again, he was in what he called a literary straitjacket. But that's the book that becomes The Cat in the Hat. The game-changer for him, for reading, for classrooms. The juggernaut. It is the book on which all other Doctor Seuss books float afterwards. His entire back catalog starts selling like crazy. That’s the moment everything changes for him. That's the moment that he can now become Doctor Seuss full-time.

OR: What do you think is the most Seussian of his books, and what are your personal favorites?

Jones:  I think we all view what “Seussian” means slightly differently. When I started this project, I would have told you my favorite Doctor Seuss book was probably The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins — one of the least Seussian of his books. It's working within the confines of a fairy tale. It's main characters are all people, there are none of these crazy animals in it and none of these crazy words.

The books that I really liked that I think are the most Seussian are some of the earlier books, especially the group of them that form the so-called “Springfield Trilogy:” McElligott’s Pool, If I Ran the Circus, If I Ran the Zoo. If I Ran the Zoo, in my opinion, is his finest book. That's the one I really fell in love with, it's one of the best written. The verse of it is some of the bounciest and most fun he's ever done. (It's also the book the word nerd comes from, which I love.)

The concept is simple: if I — in this case the narrator is a little kid — ran the zoo, what would my animals be like? It starts off with lions but the list gets crazier and nuttier and the made-up names start coming into it and you get big cats with eight legs and crazy and weird-looking birds.

Things are getting wilder and wilder, and then at the very end — bam! We're right back where we started and everything's normal again, very much like Mulberry Street.

We really see him playing around with odd-looking animals and odd-looking creatures. Nobody does that better than him with strange names. One of the things I love about him working with those strange names is that he has this ability to invent a word that sounds like it actually existed already. Words like Sneetch, words like Grinch. He himself always joked that he'd just looked them up.

OR: Where does his unique style, especially as it relates to those imaginary animals, come from?

Jones: I went back and looked at the newspapers he would've grown up with as a kid. His father would bring him the comics from Boston. So he was looking at stuff like Bringing Up Father and Felix the Cat. His early art looks a lot like that and you can see it carried over into Mulberry Street. He falls into a lot of easy stereotypes: businessmen all have spats and top hats striped pants and top coats. It's in college that he starts messing around with the more farcical animals: ducks wearing shoes, animals that have boxing gloves for hands.