Most people know him as Dr. Seuss, but Theodor Seuss Geisel was much more than a children’s author. As a boy, much of his life was defined, for better and for worse, by his being a German-American. Later, he wrote advertising copy, political cartoons and World War II propaganda. He dabbled in children’s books along the way, but didn’t really settle on them until later on, after World War II. He then went on to write the books with which we are all familiar, plus plenty of other, lesser known ones. He championed children’s literacy and took us from Dick and Jane to a place where children actually enjoyed learning how to read.
Beyond my love of his work from when I as a kid (I still have my copy of My Book About ME all filled out), and my rediscovery of some of his works since being a parent, there is a special place in my heart for Geisel. He worked with my grandfather during the war and he was friends with my family. I have a handwritten and hand drawn Christmas note he sent to my grandfather and family from quite a while back. It’s fun to have that kind of connection.
To learn much more about Geisel, his writing career and his books, take a look at Theodor Seuss Geisel by Donald E. Pease. Pease digs deeply into Geisel’s works, the motivations behind them and various analyses of their content. So this book is less of a complete biography and more about Geisel’s career and origins, with brief touches on his personal life.
Theodor Seuss Geisel starts out by talking about Geisel’s German roots. His family was a proud German-American one, and brewing beer was the family business. But when World War I came along, being German wasn’t the best thing to be in this country. And during Prohibition, brewing beer was no longer a viable profession. So Geisel’s family was very much impacted by these national and world events. The rest of the book goes into detail about his career, but keeps referring back to his family and upbringing. A great deal of the content in Geisel’s books were inspired by his youth, growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It is obvious that the author did extensive research into Geisel’s career. The book covers his early struggles to make a living through writing and art, then his quick rise to lavish parties and doing work for many prominent magazines and companies. Much of his early work was drawing cartoons against Prohibition, in no small part because brewing beer was his father’s family business. Geisel’s early books, too, also reflected topics of the time, including Prohibition. During World War II, Geisel turned his talents to political cartooning, against fascism and against American isolationism. His family’s negative experience as German-Americans during World War I helped fuel his desire to be heard, drawing on his personal experience of bad treatment.
Partly because of my family link, I was particularly interested in reading about his work in the army during World War II. His relationships that developed while working for the army with Frank Capra’s group at Fort Fox led Geisel to other projects later. He had made some connections with other artists such as P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf and Chuck Jones.
Ted Geisel was very politically active in his writing and drawing, in between writing his early children’s books. Eventually, though, he was finally able to connect the seemingly unrelated parts of his career into one cohesive goal and career. He finally settled on children’s literature for sure after realizing “that political education ‘might more productively start at childhood.'” (p. 75) The timing of this was helped by occurring at the start of the baby boom, supplying him with a convenient group of readers. He knew what he was doing, putting bigger, sometimes political, messages into his stories. He was an advocate for good children’s literature and seemed to know what kids truly wanted. Themes he tackled include minority rights, social discrimination, the cold war and nuclear weapons, environmentalism and, of course, children’s literacy.
Cat in the Hat made kids want to learn to read. Geisel and other children’s authors wrote books for three different series, to help kids learn to read. First came Beginner Books for which The Cat in the Hat was the first of the series. These books were written with mostly words of basic vocabulary for kids. Next came Big Books for slightly older children. Finally, The Foot Book was the first of the Bright and Early books for children too young for the Beginner Books.
Geisel spent a few decades writing mostly children’s literature, illustrating them himself with his distinctive, silly, colorful art. Then, knowing the end of his life was near, he was able to say a final goodbye by writing Oh, the Places You’ll Go! It seems an appropriate last book.
Theodor Seuss Geisel is heavy on analysis, but for someone who wants to make an academic study of the content, meaning and motivations of Geisel’s work, this book is a fascinating resource. Pease used extensive reference material to assemble his analyses. He details it all in his notes section, and the lengthy index is helpful if you want to look for something specific. The book also includes plenty of Geisel’s drawings, especially earlier ones.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, by Donald E. Pease is currently available on Amazon for $13.57.
Wired: The author did extensive research and analysis of Geisel’s entire life’s work, and it shows. While the book isn’t very long, it is filled with interesting information into the motivations behind Geisel’s choices, art, stories and books. The book is a very good overview of his career and related topics.
Tired: If you are just looking for an entertaining biography of Geisel’s life and work, this book might be too heavy on analysis for you.
Note: A copy of this book was furnished to me for review purposes.