Theodor Seuss Geisel (2 March 1904 – 24 September 1991) was an American children’s author, political cartoonist, illustrator, poet, animator, screenwriter, and filmmaker.
He was born and raised in Springfield, but his family was of German descent. They had emigrated from Bavaria (now a part of Germany) in the 19th century and settled in Massachusetts.
During World War 1, Theodor and his sister Marnie experienced anti-German prejudice: this personal experience made him develop a strong sense of social justice. He was against any kind of discrimination. In one of his books, he wrote the well-known phrase: ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small’.
During his college years at Dartmouth he was caught drinking alcohol in his room, violating the Prohibition law. As a consequence, he was removed as editor of the college humour magazine “Jack -O-Lantern”. He wanted to continue his work, but to avoid getting punished, he had to publish cartoons under his middle name ‘Seuss’, which was also his mother’s maiden name.
After graduating from Dartmouth, he went to Oxford, in England, intending to get a degree in English literature, but after less than a year, in 1927, he left university without earning a degree and returned to the United States, where he immediately began sending his writings and drawings to magazines, book publishers, and advertising agencies
His first job was in advertising, and when he was hired to create ads by the makers of Flit, a spray for killing flies and mosquitoes containing DDT, he creates ads showing people threatened by fanciful, menacing insect-like creatures, which contained the tagline “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” This catchphrase became a part of popular culture in the United States.
He began writing and drawing children’s books because it was one of the few genres not forbidden by his ad contracts: that is how he started the career that would bring him fame. He said, “I would like to say I went into children’s book writing because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.”
He added the “Dr. (doctor)” to his pen name because his father had always wanted him to become a physician.
His first book “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was published in 1937.
When World War 2 broke out, he devoted himself to political cartoons: he denounced Hitler and Mussolini, was highly critical of non-interventionists, and penned several anti-Japanese cartoons.
He also worked in the animation and film department of the United States Army making animated training films and drawing propaganda posters.
After the war, Geisel returned to children’s books, helping to shape the minds of young readers to be politically aware and to fight for social justice.
In 1956, Dartmouth awarded him with an honorary doctorate, finally legitimizing the “Dr.” in his pen name.
He published over 60 books during his career, some of which were adapted for television specials, feature films, a Broadway musical, and also television series.
He sold over 600 million copies and was translated into more than 20 languages by the time of his death.
In 1984 he won the Pulitzer prize in recognition of his “special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents”.
Although he devoted most of his life to writing children’s books, he never had children himself, but he always understood them and is quoted as having said about children: “You have ’em: I’ll entertain ’em.”
Some weeks before his death in 1991, Seuss was interviewed by a reporter who asked if there was anything he felt he had left unsaid. He replied: “Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.’ The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be, ‘We can…and we’ve got to…do better than this.’”
Geisel’s birthday, 2 March, has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association in 1997. This holiday focuses on motivating children and teenagers to read as it improves their performance in school.