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Brian Jay Jones on Dr. Seuss and kids of all ages

Octavian Report: What was Dr. Seuss’s early life like? How does he first become an artist and an illustrator?

Brian Jay Jones: What I think is so interesting about his childhood is, for the most part, how unremarkable it is. And that’s not to say it wasn’t important to him. But he’s not one of these kids who was like Steven Spielberg, filming his trains crashing into each other when he’s eight years old. Who from day one knows what he wants to do.

Seuss is the son of very successful brewer. He’s heir apparent. But there’s a lot going on in his hometown of Springfield, MA, that informs that big imagination. The architecture in town looks like it belongs in a Doctor Seuss book and there’s people with interesting names in that town. Growing up the son of Germans, he heard that language spoken at home and he spoke it fluently. Germans have a funny, interesting language where if you want to make a word mean a little more you just keep adding onto it. I think he loved the sound and the look of that language. There’s a lot going on in his childhood that I think informs his imagination. But when you see him doing his art and his cartoons when he’s in high school, they’re not anything terribly remarkable. As he gets into college, he’s determined to be editor of the humor magazine at Dartmouth. That’s where he starts developing his craft and his sense of humor.

Still, once he graduates from Dartmouth he heads off to Oxford with hopes of being a college professor. I don’t even know that he’s convinced that being a cartoonist is something a responsible human being does for a living until he runs into his future wife Helen at Oxford who says, “You’re a fantastic cartoonist, you should be doing this.” What I love about his story are the big arcs it contains, where any time he could have gone off in any number of directions and been derailed from ever becoming Doctor Seuss. He’s ready to ad-lib, which is what we as Americans tend to do. He’s very flexible and he’s always constantly feeling his way. I think he’s very relatable in that sense: he’s not always sure what he wants to do with his life. And for the first part of his career, essentially he’s still feeling his way and having a great time in New York as a young man during the age of Prohibition but still uncertain whether this is what he wants to do with his life.

OR: What is the first book he manages to publish?

Jones: The first book he publishes is And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But that book isn’t necessarily — and he even said this in his lifetime — driven by some compelling need he felt to tell stories for children. The decision was made largely because there was money on the table.

He had a successful advertising career. His primary client was Standard Oil. He had a semi-exclusive contract and couldn’t do a lot of outside work. But one of the things he wasn’t prohibited from doing was writing and drawing children’s books. He was looking for another creative outlet, but also another source of money.

It takes him a while to get it published. He is rejected by 30 or so publishers. He’s walking back down Madison Avenue with the manuscript in 1937 and he’s taking it home to burn it and he runs into an old Dartmouth friend of his who says, “What have you got there?” And he says, “I’ve got a book no one will publish. I’m taking it home to burn it.” And his friend says, “I actually just got a job with Vanguard Books. We’re standing outside my office. Why don’t you come upstairs and let’s see what we can do?” And Vanguard ends up publishing that first book. Seuss always said later, “Had I been walking down the other side of the street, I could well be in dry cleaning today.”

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is next, which is very different from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. He does those two books and then Bennett Cerf of Random House falls in love with his work and says, “Let me know what you want to do and I’ll publish it.” So Seuss continues to write and draw kids’ books, about one a year, up until World War II starts.

He actually isn’t doing well enough off those books to do them for a living. I think that’s remarkable: Doctor Seuss couldn’t live off of Doctor Seuss books until much later in his career. We always view him as this huge icon but it took him quite a while to get there. That first phase of his career — Mulberry Street and Bartholomew Cubbins and Horton Hatches the Egg — is him figuring out the form and being very particular with colors and the art. The next really big moment comes when he goes into the Army, into the Signal Corps, and he’s working under the legendary director Frank Capra.

Capra is the one who says: this is how you write a script where every word counts and this is how you tighten up your plots and this is how you make sure that what you’re doing is well-said and relevant. Seuss works with animation titan Chuck Jones, as well; both he and Capra teach him how to storyboard. This is the next kickstart he needs in his career. It teaches him about concision and storytelling.

The next major turning point for him — and I think this is one of the most important parts of his career — comes in 1949, when he’s invited to the University of Utah to do a writer’s workshop. He’s supposed to teach a class on writing for children. It’s the first time in his life he’s had to really sit down and think about it: why do you do it; what are the conceits and traditions you’re working in; what are the clichés; how do you write to reach a kid. His lecture notes were among of the best documents I got ahold of when I was researching the book. They show him going through these pages and writing things down and scratching things out and really thinking about it.

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.

His wife used to tease him that he didn’t have any real sense of anatomy. He’d just put the joints where he thought they should go. When you’re working with animals that don’t exist, it lets you come up with your own anatomical structure (which is a fantastic place to be).

OR: What was he like as a person?

Jones: He had this gigantic, impressive work ethic: going into the office or the studio every morning at the same time, usually 9 AM, and working all day. Even if nothing was happening. He was the son of brewers, and one of the things I loved about him is there was happy hour on his calendar all the time. When he was traveling in Australia, there was time for cocktails, every day. He was a practical joker. He was loyal. His wife once said that he had his Dartmouth friends and he’d never really needed any more after that. He had a very close-knit group of friends that had gone to Dartmouth with him. He stayed friends with them his entire life. He felt very close to his Dartmouth friends, and very loyal to somebody like Bennett Cerf who believed in him.

Once he becomes editor of Beginner Books and he’s in charge of his own imprint, I don’t think he suffers fools lightly. I think he’s a perfectionist. I think that made him tough to work for. But he was always all about the final product. So people like Stan and Jan Berenstain doing the Berenstain Bears books loved and adored him (even if they were slightly terrified of him).

OR: How did he understand children so well?

Jones: His wife would playfully say, “He gets it because his mind is that of a child.” That’s a great soundbite. But more than anything else, I think it was just the fact that he was writing books that he wanted to read.

He often asked: “Why would you give a kid something as terrible as Dick and Jane? I wouldn’t torture a kid with that.” I think that was a major factor in why he could write for kids so well. As he said, late in his career, “I write for people.” He didn’t necessary distinguish between the fact that he was writing for three-year-olds and five-year-olds. He thought of it as writing for people. I think that’s one of the reasons he loved it when he got the Pulitzer Prize: a Pulitzer acknowledges you’ve been writing for everybody.

He was lightning in a bottle. I wish it was more explicable, but I think it’s inexplicable.

OR: What was the most surprising change in your understanding of him as an artist and writer that this project brought on for you?

Jones:  Seeing the degree to which he has his eye on the ball constantly was one. What mattered to him, the most — especially once he truly becomes Doctor Seuss — is that he wants the work to be great. Everybody who worked with him knew they were getting the good stuff, knew he was always going to bring the heat.

Another was just how hard it was for him. Bennett Cerf called him the “one true genius” that he was publishing at Random House (and this is at a time when Random House were publishing William Faulkner). But Seuss always said, “If I’m a genius, why do I have to work so damn hard?” These books are tough, especially when you’re writing with limited vocabulary lists and trying to make them fun and entertaining and make the art exciting for kids. I think he would be appalled at how easy people think it is to cough up a kid’s book. Every celebrity wants to write a kid’s book nowadays. For him these were hard work, they would go up on the walls for weeks, months, years while he tinkered with them and rewrote them and revised them and tried to make every word matter.