A Reason For His Rhymes

He was not a doctor (the pen name was adopted when he wrote for the humor magazine Judge in the late 1920s). And he had no children. "You make 'em; I amuse them," he once said. But nearly a decade after his death at the age of 87, Theodor Seuss Geisel remains a legendary figure in children's literature as well as in Ameri-can popular culture. His distinctive rhyming pattern, called anapestic tetrameter, and his eccentric characters--the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Horton--have captivated three generations.

Geisel's first attempt at writing for children barely made it into bookstores. In 1937, 27 publishers rejected "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" before Vanguard finally accepted it. The book, inspired by a street in Geisel's hometown of Springfield, Mass., was a huge success, and most of Dr. Seuss's 47 children's works have been in print ever since. At the time of his death, more than 100 million copies had been sold in 18 languages--an enviable record for an author in any genre. According to Geisel's biographers, Judith and Neil Morgan, his longtime editor, Bennett Cerf, liked to shock audiences by naming famous Random House writers--including Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner and John O'Hara--and proclaiming that only Geisel was a true genius.

It was Cerf who bet Geisel $50 that he couldn't write a book using just 50 words. The result, in 1960, was "Green Eggs and Ham," Geisel's most popular work. The bet came after the enormous success of "The Cat in the Hat," written with 225 words in an attempt to kill off the tedious Dick-and-Jane primers of the 1950s. In their biography, "Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel," the Morgans say the 225 words came from a first-grade vocabulary list provided by William Spaulding, the head of Houghton Mifflin's education division, who was eager to find a way to get more kids to read. Geisel read the list over and over and couldn't figure out any way to create a story out of it. Finally, in desperation, he decided to find the first two words that rhymed and make them the title. "I found 'cat'; and then I found 'hat'," he said. "That's genius, you see!"

Teachers still recommend Seuss books for beginning readers, especially kids who are struggling. The repetitive rhymes and nonsense words can help youngsters understand the relationship between symbols and sounds. But even more important, his works inspire a lifelong love of reading. In 1985 Geisel was invited to speak to the members of Princeton's graduating class. As he walked toward the lectern, the entire class stood up in unison and chanted "Green Eggs and Ham." That's genius.