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What is Read Across America Day?

Almost twenty years ago, the National Education Association (N.E.A.) and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. decided to celebrate the birthday of Theodor Geisel (1904-1991) as Read Across America Day (R.A.A.D.). A graduate of Dartmouth College, Geisel studied at the University of Oxford with the ambition of earning a doctorate, but he there met Helen Marion Palmer (1899-1967), who persuaded him that his destiny was as an artist, not a professor of literature.

They married in 1927 and she became his first wife as Helen Geisel. He thereafter supported them as a cartoonist until his first book was published.

A large number of publishers – the exact number varied with the telling – had rejected his first manuscript, but a chance encounter in the street with an old college friend led to Vanguard Press publishing And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937. He used his mother’s maiden name, Seuss, as his nom de plume.

He pronounced the German name correctly, so it rhymed with “voice.” Eventually, he pronounced it the Anglicized way, in part, because if it was pronounced “Soos” it rhymed with “goose” as in Mother Goose.

During World War II, he went from drawing editorial cartoons – later collected by Professor Richard H. Minear and published in 1999 as Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel – to drawing propaganda posters for the U.S. Treasury Department and War Production Board, to joining the U.S. Army in 1943 as a captain.

He led the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. The movie studio R.K.O. turned his training film Our Job in Japan, meant for our occupying forces in postwar Japan, into a longer documentary, Design for Death (1947) that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

He wrote many of his most popular books between 1950 and 1960, after he and Helen moved to La Jolla, California: If I Ran the Zoo, (1950), Horton Hears a Who! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). He seems to have coined the term “nerd” as the name of one of his whimsical animals in If I Ran the Zoo.

Geisel wrote The Cat in the Hat after being challenged by William Ellsworth Spaulding, Director of Education (and future Chairman) of Houghton Mifflin, to write a book for beginning readers using words Spaulding thought were important for young children to know. Spaulding was influenced by a 1954 article in Life magazine by John Hersey and the book Why Johnny Can’t Read by Professor Rudolf Franz Flesch, both of which decried primers as boring.

Spaulding had experts draw up three word lists for Geisel to peruse. Louis Menand described this process in an essay published in The New Yorker in 2002, “Cat People: What Dr. Seuss really taught us.”

The first was composed of two hundred and twenty words that first graders could be expected to recognize at sight—like 'a,' 'about,' 'and,' 'are,' and so on. Geisel selected a hundred and twenty-three. The second list contained two hundred and twenty words that beginning readers might recognize from phonics exercises—sets of words similar in sound, such as 'make' and 'rake' and 'cake.' Geisel chose forty-five. And the third list contained two hundred and twenty words that first graders had probably never seen but should be able to decipher, such as 'beat,' 'fear,' and 'kick.' Geisel used thirty-one.

Geisel chose 199 words from three lists and added twenty-one of his own. A word count would reveal there are 1,702 words in The Cat in the Hat, but this is a matter of repetition and mixture of the same 220 words.

As Menand recounted, Spaulding made a deal with Geisel’s regular publisher, Random House, under which Houghton Mifflin would publish a textbook edition of The Cat in the Hat and Random House would publish the trade book edition. The book came out in March of 1957 and was an immediate success. By the year 2000, 7,200,000 hardcover copies of The Cat in the Hat existed in the U.S. alone. Long before then, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf (1898-1971) purchased the textbook rights from Houghton Mifflin.

Cerf established a division to publish similar books. With Cerf’s wife, authoress Phyllis Fraser Cerf (1916-2006),[2], Theodor & Helen Geisel co-founded the Random House imprint Beginner Books.

Mrs. Cerf chose a list of 379 words from primers and told writers to use 200 words from the list. For Green Eggs and Ham, Geisel re-used a mixture of just fifty words, forty-nine of which were monosyllabic.

Following Helen’s death in 1967, he married Audrey Stone Dimond in 1968. The man who brought so much joy to so many young children had no children of his own.

In 1980, the Association for Library Service to Children (A.L.S.C.) awarded Geisel the Laura Ingolls Wilder Medal. At the time, the Wilder Medal was given out every five years.

Four years later, he received a special Pulitzer Prize. It reads, “For his special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents.”

To commemorate his and Audrey’s generosity as donors, as well as acknowledge that his books are amongst the first and most beloved books generations of children have read, four years after his death, in 1995, the University of California, San Diego changed the name of its University Library Building to Geisel Library. In 2004, the A.L.S.C. introduced the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. It was first presented at the 2006 A.L.A. Annual Conference for 2005.

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year. The winner(s), recognized for their literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading, receives a bronze medal. Honor Book authors and illustrators receive certificates, which are presented at the ALA Annual Conference. The award was established in 2004 and first presented in 2006.

The award is named for the world-renowned children’s author, Theodor Geisel. 'A person’s a person no matter how small,' Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, would say. 'Children want the same things we want: to laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted.' Brilliant, playful, and always respectful of children, Dr. Seuss charmed his way into the consciousness of four generations of youngsters and parents. In the process, he helped them to read.

Seuss authorized his former military colleague, Chuck Jones (1912-2002), who had had so much success making Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Brothers and Tom & Jerry cartoons for MGM, to produce the half-hour adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) for television. The world-famous British actor Boris Karloff (1887-1969) narrated and provided the voice of the Grinch. Phil Roman, who later formed the animation studio Film Roman, was one of the animators who worked on the project.

Jones would go on to produce Horton Hears a Who! (1970) and The Cat in the Hat (1971). Audrey Geisel has authorized more recent live-action and animated adaptations of her late husband’s works.

Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty produced the Broadway musical Seussical (2000-2001), which has spawned touring productions in the U.S. and U.K. Jim Carrey starred in a live-action Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and Mike Myers starred in a live-action The Cat in the Hat (2003).

Carrey and Steve Carrell provided voices for Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (2008). 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios, which is best known for the Ice Age series, produced the film.

Imagination Entertainment produced Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012), which Universal released. Danny DeVito and Zac Efron provided voices.

A British-Canadian co-production, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! airs in the U.S. on P.B.S. Martin Short provides the voice of The Cat in the Hat.

[1] Geisel used another pen name, Theo LeSieg, when he wrote a book that someone else illustrated.

[2] In 1940, the former actress Phyllis Fraser married Bennett Cerf as his third wife. They had two sons. After the death of her first husband, she married former New York City Mayor Robert Ferdinand Wagner II (1910-1991), and became Phyllis Fraser Cerf Wagner.

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