The Stories Behind 10 Dr. Seuss Books

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Theodor Seuss Geisel—who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2, 1904—wasn't actually a doctor (at least not until his alma mater, Dartmouth, gave him an honorary PhD), but his unique poetic meter and leap-off-the-page illustrations made him one of the most successful children's writers in history. Here's a little background on some of his greatest hits.

1. THE LORAX

The Lorax is widely recognized as Dr. Seuss's take on environmentalism and how humans are destroying nature. Groups within the logging industry weren't very happy about it and later sponsored The Truax—a similar book, but from the logging point of view. Another interesting fact: The Lorax used to contain the line, "I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie," but 14 years after the book was published, the Ohio Sea Grant Program wrote to Seuss and told him how much the conditions had improved and implored him to take the line out. Dr. Seuss agreed and said that it wouldn't be in future editions.

2. THE CAT IN THE HAT

Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat because he thought the famous Dick and Jane primers were insanely boring. Because kids weren't interested in the material, they weren't exactly compelled to use it repeatedly in their efforts to learn to read. So, The Cat in the Hat was born. "I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries," the author once said. "That is my greatest satisfaction."

3. GREEN EGGS AND HAM


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Bennett Cerf, Dr. Seuss's editor, bet him that he couldn't write a book using 50 words or less. The Cat in the Hat was pretty simple, after all, and it used 225 words. Not one to back down from a challenge, Geisel started writing and came up with Green Eggs and Ham—which uses exactly 50 words.

The 50 words, by the way, are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

4. HORTON HEARS A WHO!

The line from the book "A person's a person, no matter how small" has been used as a slogan for pro-life organizations for years. It's often questioned whether that was Seuss's intent in the first place, but when he was still alive, he threatened to sue a pro-life group unless they removed his words from their letterhead. Karl ZoBell, the attorney for Dr. Seuss's interests, says the author's widow doesn't like people to "hijack Dr. Seuss characters or material to front their own points of view."

5. MARVIN K. MOONEY WILL YOU PLEASE GO NOW!

It's often alleged that Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! was written specifically about Richard Nixon, but the book came out only two months after the whole Watergate scandal. Which makes it unlikely that the book could have been conceived of, written, edited, and mass-produced in such a short time; also, Seuss never admitted that the story was originally about Nixon.

But that's not to say he didn't understand how well the two flowed together. In 1974, he sent a copy of Marvin K. Mooney to his friend, Art Buchwald, at The Washington Post. In it, he crossed out "Marvin K. Mooney" and replaced it with "Richard M. Nixon," which Buchwald reprinted in its entirety. Oh, and one other tidbit: This book contains the first-ever reference to "crunk," although its meaning is a bit different than today's crunk.

6. YERTLE THE TURTLE


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Yertle the Turtle = Hitler? Yep. If you haven't read the story, here's a little overview: Yertle is the king of the pond, but he wants more. He demands that other turtles stack themselves up so he can sit on top of them to survey the land. Mack, the turtle at the bottom, is exhausted. He asks Yertle for a rest; Yertle ignores him and demands more turtles for a better view. Eventually, Yertle notices the moon and is furious that anything dare be higher than himself, and is about ready to call for more turtles when Mack burps. This sudden movement topples the whole stack, sends Yertle flying into the mud, and frees the rest of the turtles from their stacking duty.

Dr. Seuss actually said Yertle was a representation of Hitler. Despite the political nature of the book, none of that was disputed at Random House—what was disputed was Mack's burp. No one had ever let a burp loose in a children's book before, so it was a little dicey. In the end, obviously, Mack burped.

7. THE BUTTER BATTLE BOOK

The Butter Battle Book was pulled from the shelves of libraries for a while because of the reference to the Cold War and the arms race. Yooks and Zooks are societies who do everything differently. The Yooks eat their bread butter-side up and the Zooks eat their bread butter-side down. Obviously, one of them must be wrong, so they start building weapons to outdo each other: the "Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch," the "Triple-Sling Jigger," the "Jigger-Rock Snatchem," the "Kick-A-Poo Kid," the "Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz," the "Utterly Sputter," and the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo."

The book concludes with each side ready to drop their ultimate bombs on each other, but the reader doesn't know how it actually turns out.

8. AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET

Dr. Seuss's first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times according to Guy McLain of the Springfield Museum in Geisel's hometown. Only after Geisel bumped into a friend who'd just been hired by a publishing house did the book get the green light. "He said if he had been walking down the other side of the street," McLain told NPR, "he probably would never have become a children's author."

9. OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO!


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Oh, The Places You'll Go! is Dr. Seuss's final book, published in 1990. It sells about 300,000 copies every year because so many people give it to college and high school grads.

10. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!

No Dr. Seuss story would be complete without a mention of the television special based on his book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! In the Dr. Seuss-sanctioned cartoon, Frankenstein's Monster himself, Boris Karloff, provided the voice of the Grinch and the narration. Seuss was a little wary of casting him because he thought his voice would be too scary for kids.

Tony the Tiger, a.k.a. Thurl Ravenscroft, is the voice behind "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." He received no credit on screen, so Dr. Seuss wrote to newspaper columnists to tell them exactly who had sung the song.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2009.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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