Theodor Geisel Biography

Born: March 2, 1904
Springfield, Massachusetts
Died: September 24, 1991
La Jolla, California

American children's book author and illustrator

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote the popular children's books The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hatches the Egg, and many more. As Dr. Seuss, Geisel brought a whimsical touch and a colorful imagination to the world of children's books.

Theodor Geisel. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.
Theodor Geisel.
Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos

Childhood and early career

Theodor Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father owned a brewery until the onset of Prohibition, a time in the 1920s when buying and selling alcohol was made illegal. Geisel's father then took a job as superintendent of city parks, which included the local zoo. There, young Theodor spent many days drawing the animals and eventually developing his own unique style. Though Geisel would later gain fame because of his unique artistic style, he never once had an art lesson.

After graduating high school, Geisel went on to graduate from Dartmouth College in 1925, and later studied at the Lincoln College of Oxford University in England. After dropping out of Oxford, he traveled throughout Europe, mingling with émigrés (those living abroad) in Paris, including writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). Eventually returning to New York, he spent fifteen years in advertising before joining the army and making two Oscar-winning documentaries, "Hitler Lives" and "Design for Death," which he made with his wife, Helen Parker Geisel. He would also win an Oscar for his animated cartoon "Gerald McBoing Boing"(1951). Also at this time Geisel began drawing and selling his cartoons to national magazines, including Vanity Fair and the Saturday Evening Post. Later he worked as an editorial cartoonist for PM newspaper in New York.

First books

Geisel began writing the verses of his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1936 during a rough sea passage. But success did not come easy for the young author, as Mulberry Street was rejected by twenty-nine different publishers before it was finally accepted. Published in 1937, the book won much praise, largely because of its unique drawings.

All of Geisel's books, in fact, feature crazy-looking creatures that are sometimes based on real animals, but which usually consist of such bizarre combinations of objects as a centipede and a horse and a camel with a feather duster on its head. Unlike many puppeteers and cartoonists who have capitalized on their creations by selling their most familiar images to big-time toy-makers, Dr. Seuss concentrated his efforts on creating interesting books.

In May 1954, after a string of successful books, Geisel published what would become his most famous book, The Cat in the Hat. Legend has it that The Cat in the Hat was created, in part, because of a bet Geisel made with a publisher who said he could not write a complete children's book with less than 250 words. The Cat in the Hat came in at 223 words. In 1960 Geisel published his second-most successful book, Green Eggs and Ham, which used only fifty words. In 1958, from the success of his children's books, Geisel founded Beginner Books, which eventually became part of Random House.

"Basically an educator"

Admired among fellow authors and editors for his honesty and hard work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, according to Ruth MacDonald in the Chicago Tribune, "perfected the art of telling great stories with a vocabulary as small as sometimes fifty-two or fifty-three words."

"[Geisel] was not only a master of word and rhyme and an original and eccentric artist," Gerald Harrison, president of Random House's merchandise division, declared in Publisher's Weekly, "but down deep, I think he was basically an educator. He helped teach kids that reading was a joy and not a chore.… For those of us who worked with him, he taught us to strive for excellence in all the books we published."

Wrote for adults as well as children

Geisel's last two books spent several months on the bestseller lists and include themes that appealed to adults as well as children. "Finally I can say that I write not for kids but for people," he commented in the Los Angeles Times. Many of his readers were surprised to learn that Geisel had no children of his own, though he had stepchildren from his second marriage to Audrey Stone Dimond. To this fact he once said, "You make 'em, I amuse 'em," as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. According to the Los Angeles Times, the author also remarked, "I don't think spending your days surrounded by kids is necessary to write the kind of books I write.… Once a writer starts talking down to kids, he's lost. Kids can pick up on that kind of thing."

Before Geisel, juvenile books were largely pastel, predictable, and dominated by a didactic tone (a sense that the books were intended to instruct). Though Dr. Seuss books sometimes included morals, they sounded less like behavioral guidelines and more like, "listen to your feelings" and "take care of the environment," universal ideas that would win over the hearts of youngsters from around the world. Geisel's 47 books were translated into 20 languages and have sold more than 200 million copies. Of the ten bestselling hardcover children's books of all time, four were written by Geisel: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Hop on Pop.

Theodor Geisel died September 24, 1991, in La Jolla, California. To children of all ages, Dr. Suess remains the most famous and influential name in children's literature.

For More Information

Dean, Tanya. Theodor Geisel. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.

Levine, Stuart P. Dr. Seuss. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001.

Morgan, Judith, and Neil Morgan. Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Weidt, Maryann N. Oh, the Places He Went: A Story about Dr. Seuss—Theodor Seuss Geisel. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1994.

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