Dr. Seuss Wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” on a Bet that He Couldn’t Write a Book with 50 or Fewer Words
Today I found out Dr. Seuss wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” on a bet that he couldn’t write a book with fifty or fewer distinct words.
The bet was made in 1960 with Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, and was for $50 (about $382 today). Despite Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Geisel, winning the bet by producing one of his most popular works Green Eggs and Ham using exactly 50 unique words, Cerf never paid up. Green Eggs and Ham went on to be Geisel’s best selling work, so he made out on it anyways.
Geisel’s first successful children’s book, Cat in the Hat, also was the result of a challenge to write a book in under a certain number of words. John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, wrote a piece in a May 25, 1954 issue of Life magazine titled, “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading.” which was extremely critical of school primers. At the time, children were reading primers like “Fun with Dick and Jane“, which are anything but fun and don’t inspire kids to want to read outside of what they are required.
As a response to this, William Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, challenged Geisel to “write a story that first-graders can’t put down” and asked that it be limited to 225 distinct words from a list of 348 words that were selected from a standard first grader’s vocabulary list.
Geisel nearly succeeded, using 236 unique words in the story, though the endeavor took him nine months largely due to the word restriction.
The original story itself was supposed to be about a King cat and a Queen cat, but “queen” wasn’t on the list of acceptable words. Geisel then looked through the list of words and spotted “hat”, which obviously rhymed with “cat”, so decided to make a story out of that instead.
The Cat in the Hat was published in 1957 and went on to sell around one million copies in the first three years after being published, allowing Geisel to stop working in advertising and to focus on writing children’s books.
With his books, he not only wanted to help kids learn to read in an enjoyable way, but he also wanted to “teach them how to think”, which he felt was particularly important as he stated:
Children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on Earth.
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- The “Dr.” in “Dr. Seuss” was in homage to Geisel’s father’s hope that his son would get his PhD, which he failed to achieve after dropping out of the PhD program at Oxford where he was pursuing a PhD in English. “Seuss” was his mother’s maiden name as well as his own middle name. Interestingly, he did eventually receive several honorary doctorates, more or less managing to receive a PhD by dropping out of school.
- The proper pronunciation of “Seuss” is actually “Zoice” (rhymes with “voice”), being a Bavarian name. However, due to the fact that most Americans pronounced it incorrectly as “Soose”, Geisel later gave in and stopped correcting people, even quipping the mispronunciation was a good thing because it is “advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose.”
- Geisel first used the pen name “Seuss” in college after being removed as the editor of the Dartmouth College’s humor magazine “Jack-O-Lantern” and being banned from writing for that magazine due to being caught drinking by the dean in 1925. He subsequently started publishing under various pen names, including T. Seuss. Two years later, he adopted “Dr. Theophrastus Seuss”, which subsequently was shortened to “Dr. Seuss” by 1928.
- Geisel had an alternate pen name that he also wrote under which was Theo LeSieg. The “Theo” is short for “Theodor”, which is first name, and “LeSieg” is “Geisel” spelled backwards.
- Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer Geisel was the one who originally convinced him to drop out of the PhD program at Oxford and pursue becoming a cartoonist. He met her in college with her telling him: “You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw…” They later got engaged and married and he dropped out of school to become a cartoonist, primarily working in advertising for the next thirty years as his principle way to earn money.
- Geisel stated, possibly humorously or possibly factually, “I would like to say I went into children’s book writing because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.”
- Geisel and Helen Palmer never had any children due to the fact that Helen could not conceive. He wrote his first children’s book the same year they learned of this fact. He later made up an imaginary daughter named Chyranthemum-Pearl who he dedicated “500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” and would also include on family Christmas cards.
- Other famous children’s authors who never had children of their own include: Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Wise Brown, and Crockett Johnson.
- Helen Palmer Geisel later committed suicide in 1967 after Geisel had an affair while Helen was struggling with cancer and other sicknesses. The woman Geisel had an affair with was Audrey Stone Dimond, who he married about a year after his wife had killed herself.
- Geisel stated that his first book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected 20-30 times (the exact number varied over the years in his story telling) before he finally ran into a former classmate, Mike McClintock, who was an editor at Vanguard Press, on the street. McClintock shortly thereafter signed Geisel to a contract.
- The character of the Cat in “Cat in the Hat” and the Grinch in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” were inspired by himself. For instance, with the Grinch: “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror. It was Seuss! Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”
- This “teaching kids how to think” got Geisel in trouble more than once. For instance his book, “The Lorax“, has been banned in some schools, particularly in logging communities. (the book theme being about not exploiting nature, particularly not being favorable to greedy big businesses that do so without taking into account the environmental impact of their actions). Geisel’s response to the uproar over “the Lorax” was: “The Lorax doesn’t say lumbering is immoral. I live in a house made of wood and write books printed on paper. It’s a book about going easy on what we’ve got. It’s anti-pollution and anti-greed.”
- Geisel’s most famous ad campaign was one he did for Standard Oil who owned “Flit”, a popular insecticide of the day. The campaign slogan was “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”, which was more or less the “Got Milk?” of its day, being a nationally famous slogan.
- Geisel’s car’s license plate read “GRINCH”.
- Dr. Seuss’ “Marvin K. Mooney (Will You Please Go Now)” was purportedly about Richard M. Nixon, which Seuss revealed when criticized by political columnist Art Buchwald for never having written a politically themed children’s book. Yertle the Turtle is also said to have been about Adolf Hitler and anti-authoritarianism.
- Along with advertising and writing children’s books, Geisel also wrote over 400 political cartoons, between 1941 and 1943 while working for the New York City daily newspaper. Geisel was convinced the United States “have no choice in the matter” when it came to going to war and themed his cartoons to help convince and prepare Americans for what he felt was inevitable. These cartoons were later published in “Dr. Seuss goes to war“. Interestingly, some of his cartoons depicted all Japanese Americans as future traitors and supported locking them up in internment camps, which he later regretted. Other of his political cartoons condemned racism in America against Jews and black people, which is more in line with later themes in his children’s books, such as in Horton Hears a Who. You can see some of Dr. Seuss’ political cartoons here.
- In 1943, Geisel joined the army and was appointed the commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force. One of the films he produced while in that position, Our Job in Japan, was the basis for the Academy Award winning documentary “Design for Death”.
- Geisel credits his mother for his gift at rhythms and rhymes. When she would put them to sleep each night as children, she would softly chant various rhythmic words and phrases.
- Geisel once stated that he got all his ideas from “Switzerland, near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock repaired. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.”
- On what made him so successful, Geisel stated: “I don’t write for children. I write for people.” Or, as he once told an interviewer, “I think I can communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that. I treat the child as an equal.”
- Geisel died on September 24, 1991 of throat cancer.
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