A Brief Visit With Dr. Seuss
A Children's Day Sermon

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
May 19, 2002

"On and on you will hike. And I know you'll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are... And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 per cent guaranteed.)"
Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You'll Go!

This morning I am happy to announce that on June 1, 2002 the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts will be holding an exhibition that will coincide with the unveiling of the National Seuss Memorial. Countless pieces will be on display from Dr. Seuss's personal collection, not to mention four large bronze statues of characters he made famous in his books. I hope many of you can go to Springfield during the month of June to see the display.

As we begin this short journey into the mind and heart of one of the world's most famous authors of children's books let me say that the real person behind the name is just as fascinating and wildly fantastic a figure as were the stories and characters he created. His name was Theodore Seuss Geisel but he was known to you all simply as beloved "Dr. Seuss".

Listen to some of the more colorful titles of some of his books:

Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose
Bartholomew and the Oobleck
The Lorax
The Butter Battle Book
There's A Wocket in My Pocket
(And of course the one most familiar read on Youth Sunday to the children by Jonathan Pritchard): Green Eggs and Ham

Of course I haven't mentioned other familiar titles such as:

Horton Hears a Who
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Yertle the Turtle

Dr. Seuss was a master at bringing wonder and delight to the imaginations of children. Let us try for a little to understand how he was able to do this so well.

There is no doubt that Ted Geisel was a zany character if limitless dimensions. One interviewer asked him once how he got his ideas for his books. Here is what he replied:

"This is the most asked question of any successful author...I get all my ideas in 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."

Then, in the same interview if these words were not enough to prove his impish and pixilated nature, in reply to a question of how his childhood had influenced his work he said:

"Not to a very great extent. I think my (craziness) started when I got OUT of childhood. My father, however, in my early childhood, did, among other things, ran a zoo and I used to play with the baby lions and the antelope and a few other things of that sort. Generally speaking I don't think my childhood influenced my work...I think I SKIPPED my childhood."

Before Ted Geisel died at the age of 87 he had written 43 wonderful stories that will be treasured and read by parents and children the same way the Grimm Fairy Tales and the stories by Hans Christian Anderson were read in the past century. He once tried to explain how the ideas and pictures in his books actually came about:

"Mine always start as a doodle. I may doodle a couple of animals and if they BITE each other it's going to be a good book. If you doodle enough, the characters begin to take over themselves - after a year and a half or so...."

Boston Globe columnist wrote that Dr. Seuss was a subversive. He chose to speak primarily TO children. He sort of created a world he described as "logical insanity". It was filled with memory and imagination and the constant presence of hope in life.

Our hero was born in New England. He once said that his father was just going to be made the president of the local brewery then Prohibition was declared. And it sort of made his father a cynic. But that also led to the first of three event that had as much to do with creating the "whos" and the "floobs" and the "snees" as anything else. Not becoming a brewery president led to Dr. Seuss's father getting a job as Zoo Superintendent.

Geisel went to Dartmouth College but didn't finished when he was discovered with an illegal bottle of gin in his pocket. He was asked to step down as editor of the college humor magazine. This didn't deter him. He left for England and was accepted as a student at Oxford University and though he never received a degree there, either, he was fortunate enough to meet his wife of 40 years.

During the Depression he worked in advertising in New York City. Then a lucky "accident" found him working as a cartoonist for Judge magazine. He created an insecticide that a king was given to drive away a dragon. The rest is history. Standard Oil of New Jersey owned a product called "Flit" and they hired Geisel to illustrate a series of advertisements. Each one of them was different but the words in the cartoon were always the same: "Quick, Henry, the Flit !"

The second accident happened as a result of the contract he signed with Standard Oil. It allowed him very little freedom to write or draw professionally outside the work he did for them. So, out of a kind of desperation he took on a new pan name - "Dr. Seuss". (That actually is his middle name and is correctly pronounced as with the word "voice"; or "swoiss" but never mind.) Under that name he wrote the first of his books which he titled And To think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It launched his career.

About twenty years later the third event occurred. John Hersey had written a book titled Hiroshima. In it the author scolded book publishers for producing inadequate reading texts for young children. He closed the book with a sort of tongue-in-cheek recommendation that they turn the job over to Dr. Seuss. Ted Geisel took the idea in full seriousness and the result was his writing a book called The Cat in the Hat. That was followed by a whole stream of socially conscious texts for children.

He was bold in trying new concepts. He wrote a book against war which he called The Butter Battle Book. It tells the nonsensical story of the "Yooks" who eat their bread with the butter side up and the "Zooks" who eat their bread with the butter side down. This difference leads to a war between them.

"Then my grandfather said
It's high time you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town

But we Yooks, as you know
when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread," Grandpa said,
"with the butter side UP.
That's the right honest way!"
Grandpa gritted his teeth.
"So you can't trust a Zook
who spreads his bread.....underneath!"

The Lorax is a book that tells of this fantastic world where everyone lived happily in a world of "Truffula Trees" A character comes along and cuts one down and makes a multi-purpose garment out of the tree which he calls a "Thneed". The tree-cutting continues until the world is bare of trees and no one learns.

Then, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas he subtly teaches us about how people can become greedy and how they can change for the better. So we come to the conclusion that Dr. Seuss held a sincere belief in the use of reason and the importance of human connectedness in the world. And he believed in hope. His was a world of possibility and in it he lived and worked for the sake of children.

In his last book, Oh, The Places You'll Go! He starts with the words almost as if he won't have much time to say anything more to his little friends,

"Congratulations! Today is your day.
Your off to Great Places. You're off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

Out there things can happen and frequently do
to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things tart to happen, don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along. YOU'LL start happening, too.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they're darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And IF you go in, should you turn left or right...
Or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?

You can get so confused that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place.

Despair...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come
or a plane to go or the mail to come
or the rain to go or the phone to ring
or the snow to snow or wating around
for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting...

But NO ! That's not for you."

Dr. Seuss then speaks of times to come when the young reader might be alone and "Scared right out of his pants", but that in facing up to whatever problems there are he or she would NOT be alone at all.

"And will you succeed? Yes, you will, indeed !
98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.

(And then, as the very last words written by this master of delight:)

Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
your off to Great Places !
Today is your day !
Your mountain is waiting.

Again, Ellen Goodman admonishes us with the reminder that children are eternally being asked to "act their age". Then along comes this rare bird named "Seuss" piping a message to kids that says, "Imagine this! Thing One and Thing Two!"

Dr. Seuss has died. But in the reading room of any Library it is still possible to laugh and think at the same time. His pages were silly and excellent and warm and full of human compassion.

So, with the Cat in the Hat, as he waves good-bye to the gentle spirit of this man now gone, and wipes a tear from his eye, we'll say to the children today:




Amen, good Doctor Seuss. Amen!!!