Dr. Seuss and the Challenge that Changed How Children Read

See my dog, Spot. Run, Spot, run. Spot has a ball. The ball is red, red, red.

It was 1954 when John Hersey wrote an article in Life magazine titled “Why do Students Bog Down on the First R?” In this article, Hersey commented on the deplorable state of literacy among children in America and suggested that the blame was due to insanely boring primers, such as the Dick and Jane primers that used straight repetition to teach children to read. He proposed the idea of asking people like Walt Disney, or children’s author Dr. Seuss to help solve the problem. So, William Spaulding, the textbook publisher at Houghton Mifflin, did just that. He reached out to Seuss and commissioned him to write a book that would encourage children to read. Spaulding gave Seuss a list of (depending on what sources you read) 300-600 vocabulary words that first-graders should learn, and challenged him to write a book using only 225 of them.

Never one to back down from a challenge, Seuss took the list and began to work, and work, and work (it wasn’t as easy as he thought). He tells stories of all the book ideas he came up with when working on this project, one about a zebra, one about a whale. But the limited vocabulary tricked him up every time. Seuss once said he was trying to “sweat out a story about a bird…at the same time refraining from using the word bird.” Finally, he decided that if he could find two words that rhymed on the list, he would make that the title of the book.  Those two words ended up being Cat and Hat. The Cat in the Hat (published in 1957) took nine months to finish, but when it was done Seuss had written the book using only 223 of the words from the vocabulary list given to him (two words less than his challenge).

With its reliance on memorable rhyming pairs and word families, The Cat in the Hat served as a gateway into the phonics-based reading approach which eventually replaced the “whole-world” approach of the Dick and Jane primers. The Cat in the Hat’s success also catapulted Seuss into the business of children’s literacy, prompting him to co-found the imprint Beginner Books where he worked with other talented children’s authors and illustrators to create fun, creative, interesting books for children learning to read. He also published more of his own books under this imprint, like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham.

Speaking of Green Eggs and Ham, like The Cat in the Hat this book was written on a bet. Seuss’ publisher, Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a book using only fifty words. Not only did Seuss succeed but forty-nine of those words consist of only one syllable. Seuss won $50 from his publisher when he turned in the manuscript for Green Eggs and Ham.  He said “the trick is to imply with your illustrations what you’re not allowed to say in words.”

In 1960, Seuss told the Los Angeles Times that “books for children have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth,” and he worked hard to bring a lot of good into this world. With his colorful, exciting and unique illustrations, his memorable rhymes and a couple of irresistible challenges, Dr. Seuss helped lead the charge in changing how the American Education System taught children to read. That’s why the National Education Association annually celebrates Read Across America Day on Dr. Seuss’ birthday, March 2.

Join us in celebrating children’s literacy and Dr. Seuss by picking up a book to read on Read Across America Day at your local HPB or on HPB.com and check out our curated list of all things Seuss.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”     –from I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, by Dr. Seuss