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On 100th Anniversary, Children's Author Dr. Seuss Still Amuses


March 2 marks the 100th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Doctor Seuss. The beloved American children's writer, who died in 1991, is known for playful rhymed stories like The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Yertle the Turtle. More than 200 million copies of his works have been sold around the world. They've been translated into 20 languages and inspired television shows and films, including a recent holiday version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Like generations of children before her, eight-year-old Chloe Tomsu is growing up with Doctor Seuss.

"Now, now, have no fear, have no fear, said the cat. My tricks are not bad, said the cat in the hat. Why we can have lots of good fun if you wish, with the game that I call up, up, up with the fish," she reads.

Chloe says she loves Seuss tales like The Cat in the Hat because they make her laugh.

"These characters are very funny because the cat balances the fish on an umbrella and the fish balances a cake and a boat, and it turns into a big mess," she says.

Seuss characters not only do outlandish things, but they look different as well. The author drew cats with long noses and elephants with wings. He created whole new creatures, like the fuzzy yellow lorax, who tries to keep trees from being chopped down. But Doctor Seuss can be silly without being condescending, says literary scholar Philip Nel.

"I think that's maybe why children like his work, because they sense when they read his books that here's someone who's willing to talk straight to them in his own humorous way," he said.

Philip Nel learned to read with the help of another Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham. He's now a professor at Kansas State University and the author of a new book called Doctor Seuss: American Icon. He says he chose his title to reflect the author's distinctively American spirit.

"Seuss tends to celebrate the rebels, the underdogs, the outsiders in his books, and I think that's a very American thing to do," he explains. "Americans celebrate Independence Day, commemorating a rebellion, not Constitutional Convention day, commemorating the nation that was born from that rebellion. And so 'The Cat in the Hat,' 'Sam I Am,' and 'Horton' - these characters don't do what they're supposed to do. Why shouldn't an elephant hatch an egg? Why not fly kites in the house? Let's have some green eggs and ham."

Why not, says Chloe Tomsu…

"As you know, green eggs and ham can really exist. With food coloring on a drop of ham and eggs it can actually turn green," she says.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of a German American brewery manager. He showed an early interest in drawing and writing, usually with a humorous bent. He took the pseudonym Doctor Seuss while writing for his college literary magazine, and went on to work in advertising.

"From beer to ball bearings, fans, furnaces, radios, rifles, sugar, scotchyou name it, he did advertising…" he said.

Charles Cohen is a collector of Seuss memorabilia who's published a visual biography called The Seuss, The Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss. He believes his background writing ads helped Doctor Seuss when he began publishing books for children in the late 1930s.

"The ability to sell things to people - he had a knack for that and that really is important when you're trying to get kids to read earlier and earlier," he explains. "People were given word lists back then and told this is all kids can understand. And he always seemed to think outside the box and say, 'Kids are seeing comic books, they're seeing lots of stuff their ancestors didn't see. So let me work a little earlier at getting the kids to read.'"

Doctor Seuss also used his playful stories to deliver messages about tolerance and respect. Philip Nel says the author's natural sympathy for outsiders was sharpened by his work as a political cartoonist during World War II.

"He wrote over 400 cartoons for PM, which was this liberal New York newspaper. And the cartoons were anti-fascist. They were anti-isolationist. They were also against racial discrimination. And at least in the message books of his post-war work, that's where you really see this political sensibility enacted," explains Mr. Nel. "He said The Sneetches was inspired by his opposition to anti-Semitism, where we learn that 'no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches;' that the ones with the stars on their bellies and the ones without should be treated equally. And then there are the books that are less obviously connected to politics, but are there to change your mind, like The Lorax, where he wants people to be concerned about the environment and make sure that we protect it."

Doctor Seuss' popularity was fueled by the post-war baby boom, and may have reached its climax in 1957, when he published both How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Charles Cohen says the two books seemed to reflect the two sides of the author's personality.

"His stepdaughter, Lark, used to say she thought of Ted as the grinch on his bad days and the cat in the hat on his good days. He was definitely a practical joker, a prankster, as you would getting the feeling from The Cat in the Hat, and he could be a little bit of a curmudgeon about things like the grinch," he says.

But grumpy or funny, political or playful, Doctor Seuss stories all celebrate the power of the imagination, says biographer Charles Cohen. His favorite Seuss story as a child was On Beyond Zebra! about adding more letters to the English alphabet.

"He's saying '26 letters - what if there are more?' You don't have to take things that are given to you at face value like that," explains Mr. Cohen. "You have this brain, this wonderful tool, and you can create whole worlds just using your brain. If you tell kids they have this great power, this imagination, they grow up and you never know what that will lead to, in art or science or whatever it is."

Eight-year-old Chloe Tomsu says she's already grateful to Doctor Seuss for many reasons.

"I can feel he really did care for children's books, and he wanted us to have our good reading. And eggs and ham do go very nicely together," she says.

The Seuss Centennial is being celebrated with reading programs at schools and libraries around the United States. The U.S. Postal Service is issuing a special Seuss stamp. And at the Doctor Seuss National Memorial in Springfield, Massachusetts there will be a 100th birthday celebration on March 6 complete with hat tricks, juggling and a Theodor Geisel look-alike contest.