02 3 / 2013
It’s the birthday of a man considered to be the most popular children’s book writer in American history, the best-selling children’s book writer of all time, and a man who revolutionized the way children learned to read: Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss (books by this author), was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on this day in 1904. He’s the author of more than 60 children’s books, including Horton Hears a Who! (1954), One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Hop on Pop (1963), Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975), The Butter Battle Book (1984), and of course, The Cat in the Hat (1957).
He was the grandson of German immigrants, a lifelong Lutheran, a Dartmouth graduate, and an Oxford dropout. His mom was 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, a competitive platform high diver who read him bedtime stories every night. His dad inherited a brewery from his own German immigrant father a month before Prohibition began in the U.S., and eventually became a zookeeper who took young Theodor with him to work. The future Dr. Seuss grew up around the zoo, running around in the cages with baby lions and baby tigers.
At Dartmouth, he majored in English and wrote for the campus humor magazine. But one night he was caught drinking gin with some friends; since this was during Prohibition, it was an illegal act. The Dartmouth administration did not expel him, but as a disciplinary punishment, they did make him resign from all of his extracurricular activities, including the humor magazine, of which he was the editor-in-chief. From then on, he wrote for the magazine subversively, signing his work with his mother’s maiden name, Seuss.
His mother’s family pronounced it “Soise,” the way it’s said in Germany, but people in the States kept mispronouncing it Seuss. He eventually embraced the Anglican mispronunciation: After all, it rhymed with Mother Goose, not a bad thing for an aspiring children’s book writer.
In 1937, he published his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which he said was inspired by the rhythms of a steamliner cruiser he was on. He wrote the book, and much of the rest of his life’s work, in rhyming anapestic meter, also called trisyllabic meter. The meter is very alluring and catchy, and Seuss’s masterful use of it is a big part of why his books are so enjoyable to read. The meter is made up of two weak beats followed by a stressed syllable — da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM, as in “And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
A big study came out in the 1950s called “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” It was by an Austrian immigrant to the U.S., an education specialist who argued that the Dick and Jane primers being used to teach reading in grade school classrooms across America were boring and, worse, not an effective method for teaching reading. He called them “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers,” which went “through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading ‘Look, look’ or ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘Come, come’ or ‘See the funny, funny animal.’”
William Spaulding, a publisher from Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, thought that maybe a guy named Dr. Seuss, who’d published a few not-well-known but very imaginative children’s books, might be able to write a book that would be really good for teaching kids how to read. He invited Dr. Seuss to dinner and said, “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!”
Dr. Seuss spent nine months composing The Cat in the Hat. It uses just 220 different words and is 1,702 words long. He was a meticulous reviser, and he once said: “Writing for children is murder. A chapter has to be boiled down to a paragraph. Every word has to count.”
Within a year of publication, The Cat in the Hat was selling 12,000 copies a month; within five years, it had sold a million copies.
Credit: The Writer’s Almanac
12 1 / 2013
18 12 / 2012
It’s the birthday of one of the founders of the Methodist movement:Charles Wesley (books by this author), born in Epworth, England (1707). His older brother John Wesley was the preacher, and Charles was the writer of hymns and song leader.
The two of them went to Oxford, and they looked for deliberate ways to serve God throughout the day. Because of this, their fellow students laughed at how methodical they were and named them “Methodists,” which they adopted. They traveled around England preaching in the open air to tens of thousands. They were not always successful — they were sometimes met with mobs who threw stones, dirt, and eggs in their faces. They traveled by horseback, and if Charles thought of a hymn while he was riding, he would ride to the house of his nearest acquaintance, demand a pen and ink, and write it down. John did most of the preaching, while Charles led the faithful in hymns at Methodist meetings. Hymnbooks were expensive, and many people couldn’t read, so a leader would read out a line at a time, and everyone would sing it.
Wesley wrote 8,989 hymns, which averaged out to 10 lines of poetry every day for more than 50 years. His hymns include “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
- From The Writer’s Alamanac
13 12 / 2012
"I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner… I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things."
29 11 / 2012
It’s the birthday of novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis (books by this author), born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He grew up going to church, but he was more interested in mythology, and after his mother died when he was a boy, he became even less convinced that God existed. By the time he was a young teenager, he was a committed atheist. He received a scholarship to Oxford, and although he did not like England and though English accents sounded strange, he loved it there and ended up teaching there for nearly 30 years.
At Oxford, he met another faculty member, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis said: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” But they became close friends, and it was Tolkien who helped convince Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace Christianity. Lewis described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” but he went on to write books that are now considered classics of Christian apologetics, including The Screwtape Letters (1942) and Mere Christianity(1952). He is best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which begins with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).
- From The Writer’s Almanac
09 11 / 2012
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.
Would we have the courage to stand up to such violence today? Or are we the same as those who stood by while our neighbors are persecuted.
05 11 / 2012
"My son calls me while I’m in line at the Stop & Shop"
and I freeze, transporting tea from the cart
to the conveyer belt, mind racing to places
he might need me, as I answer my cell.
But he’s not calling for rescue from the scene
of an accident, a highway wreck or more
natural disaster, rather calling, as if I were
only in the next room. Home early
from school, he’s wondering what’s
for dinner and after being told, asks if I might
make mashed potatoes instead of rice.
I sigh a little yes, slightly annoyed at his
casualness, but glad to be able to heed the call,
reminded, I’m the one who thinks of this
accessibility as a way to keep the world
at bay, able now to respond anywhere,
yet burdened by availability.
Born into this expanding, more connected
universe, he can’t imagine why anyone
would want to be out of reach, my child who
wears new technology like a second skin
and for whom the whole world
is an easy touch away and should be.