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Teaching: The Logical Insanity of Dr. Seuss

5 minute read

In one wing of California’s La Jolla Museum of Art, grade-school kids excitedly picked through piles of Barbie-doll heads, eyeballs, limbs and torsos for parts to build an abstract model of a city. Elsewhere, they lugged huge $2,100 movie cameras about to film the summertime activity at the museum.

Throughout the museum last week some 90 white, Negro and Mexican children from Southern California schools were enjoying a frenzy of creative activity. And everywhere, prancing excitedly among the kids, was a frenetic 63-year-old man whose lean face crinkled often with laughter. It was Dr. Seuss, the cartoonist and writer, whose zany animals (The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, Yertle the Turtle) have captivated some 33 million buyers of children’s books. Hamming it up for the kids, he popped in front of drawings by Henry Moore, brought gales of youthful laughter as he told them the artist’s name was either “Heinrich Moorehaus or Schweinhenkel Block-haus, or maybe Schweinehund Block-enkopf.” He stared at the misplaced toes a girl had attached to a bongo drum-playing doll, asked: “Is that a three-toed tree toad?” He told others that he was working on “a boomerang that won’t return,” and has given “slipper-flippers” to adults.

“Obsolete Children.” This happy nonsense was byplay at the museum’s six-week summer workshop, the latest effort by Dr. Seuss, actually Theodor Seuss Geisel, to stir the imagination of children. The workshop seems to be doing just that. The kids use the backs of dolls to make small cars for the streets of the model city; they record the city’s sounds and transform them—slowed tapes of a pingpong ball bouncing on concrete boom like a distant gun; the filming gives them new visual perspectives—all aimed at making them more aware of an urban environment. “If you don’t get imagination as a child, you probably never will,” he argues, “because it gets knocked out of you by the time you grow up.” The workshop also aims to help teachers discover how children can work together creatively. Adults, claims Geisel, are really “children who have become obsolete,” thus need such help in understanding kids.

Geisel, an irrepressible child who has no children, is far from obsolete. Working out of a former observation tower atop Mount Soledad, highest point in La Jolla, he carefully turns his easel away from the distraction of the panoramic Pacific view, continues to create intriguing cartoon characters, pen funny—but moralistic—stories, mainly in verse. Scarcely a grade school or children’s library in the U.S. is without his books, which are used mainly to help beginning readers get a kick out of reading. Geisel once based his book texts—as most publishers of reading primers still do—on standardized basic word lists. But he now considers such lists so much hogwash, because today’s television-viewing children have an expanded vocabulary, uses any word “that has to do with a child’s life and hopes.”

Points Against Prejudice. While Dr. Seuss’s young readers laugh, they also learn the value of patience from Horton, who sits on a bird’s egg in a tree for eleven trying months, gets his reward when he hatches an elephant-bird. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose is a model of kindness who lets animals ride on his horns because “a host, above all, must be nice to his guests.” Geisel wrote about “star-bellied Sneetches,” who thought they were better than “plain-bellied Sneetches,” to score points against prejudice. He does not mind being called “the greatest moralist since Elsie Dinsmore,” contends that it is both right and inevitable that “you can find a moral in anything you read.”

The Massachusetts-born Geisel has a B.A. degree from Dartmouth and studied at Oxford University, but has had no art training since walking out on a high-school art teacher who refused to let him draw with his drawing board turned upside down. A cartoon of egg-nog-drinking turtles that he sold to Judge magazine in 1927 financed his marriage to fellow Oxford Student Helen Palmer, who helps him develop his story lines. His career got a big boost when his advertising cartoons for an insecticide made the caption “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” a common household quip. He was a cartoonist for the New York daily PM, created the prizewinning “Gerald McBoing-Boing” movie cartoons, and has completed a book of original songs for children.

Geisel, who considers his work “logical insanity,” gets a wry chuckle out of all the profound Ph.D. papers written about his books. He views himself —and most creative people—as those who “compensate for something—you wouldn’t start building something new unless you were dissatisfied with what you’ve got.” Perhaps, he adds with a smile, “we are all psychotic.” Maybe so, but under the spell of Dr. Seuss, a cat that wears a hat and an elephant that sits in a tree somehow seem more normal than a Dick and Jane who chase a ball.

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