I’ve been reading several biographies of the peerless Dr. Seuss, and realized how gifted he was . . . not just in the field of children’s literature but also as a practitioner of personal branding for writers.
If you’re like me, you grew up with Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, The Cat in the Hat, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, and all the other zany creatures, places, and situations devised by this master of the rhyming, readable children’s book.
Pick up any Dr. Seuss book, even one you haven’t opened before, and you have a good inkling of what you’re going to get. And each book delivers. This is the essence of branding.
In a Seuss book, you expect:
Rollicking, read-out-loud rhymes. Smile-inducing lines that stick in our heads for years: “I do not like them in a box. I do not like them with a fox. I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.” From Green Eggs and Ham, of course.)
A memorable, intriguing pen name. Seuss was Ted Geisel’s middle name, his Germanic mother’s family name. It originally rhymed with “voice,” but later was Americanized to rhyme with “juice.”) The “doctor” part was an imaginary self-awarded accolade, something he’d never earned in school. It combined one part respectability, one part the wacky world of a patent-medicine quack.
A delightful overdose of imagination unleashed. Seuss wrote and drew a pantheon of imaginative creatures and landscapes, the likes of which we’d never seen before (no one knew what a Grinch was before Seuss showed us his nasty, conniving, easily irritated soul).
A plain but playful vocabulary. A Seuss book tosses words joyfully back and forth like a jump-rope chant, with pleasure in silly sounds, multiple meanings, and odd associations of words that rhyme or just pop out.
In the end, a moral to the story. Geisel said that in a story, there are only two choices: the good guys win or the evil ones win. He made sure the good ones did, so Thidwick wanders off a happy moose, his goodness intact after his antlers fell off, while his selfish freeloading friends get their comeuppance.
All this adds up to Geisel/Seuss having become one of the most successful children’s book authors of all time.
Born Theodore Seuss Geisel in a German-American family in Springfield, Mass., he attended Dartmouth, then England’s Oxford, but was more passionate for classroom doodles and comic quips than for serious academic studies. He came of age in 1920s, the clever-quipping, convention-breaking era of the flapper. After graduation, he plunged into the advertising business in New York City, submitting cartoons and writing jingles. His big break-through was a jingle for bug-spray: “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” The short tag-line was the core of a 17-year campaign; it became embedded in the American consciousness, a line used by radio comedians like Jack Benny for a quick laugh. Branding at its best.
So like many successful writers, Geisel thought hard and professionally about how to capture people’s attention and imagination quickly. And in his books, he knew how to talk about important subjects: friendship, exploring the world, telling the truth, doing the right thing.
(And like many, he also had to endure some bad reviews, such as a letter received from a convict on death row in Texas. It read, “If your stuff is the kind of thing they’re publishing nowadays, I don’t so much mind leaving.” Ouch! Ted kept the letter.)
One of his masterpieces, The Cat in the Hat, grew out of a challenge from a friend and publisher, William Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin. Following the public furor of a popular book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Spaulding presented a challenge to Geisel: write a book for young readers using only 225 words of basic vocabulary, a list he provided.
It wasn’t easy. It was like trying to make, Geisel said, “strudel without any strudels.” But he stuck with it, and eventually the wily cat with the goofy hat and his canny cohorts, Thing One and Thing Two, came into the world to delight and enchant generations of young readers.
Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider wrote, in a wonderful article, “What Dr. Seuss Can Teach Us” (reprinted in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007), why The Cat in the Hat not only encouraged kids to read but offered a new kind of literature:
It also changed how children’s book authors learned to write. Instead of telling a thin story based on a simple, everyday incident, Seuss packed the plot with action that escalated on every page. Rather than relying on one-note characters, he populated his book with quirky, complex and surprising personalities that didn’t always cooperate with one another, thus creating tension and conflict.
I highly recommend the biography, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, by journalists Judith and Neil Morgan, for wonderful insight on how Geisel’s successful techniques in marketing himself and growing a career. He invented a new brand of children’s book. And he built it one book at a time, thinking about young readers and what they liked to read, think about, imagine.
Myself, I never imagine a Dr. Seuss book except as a well-worn slim volume, held in my own hands as I read it to my kid brother . . . enjoying each page, again and again, as much as he did.
The books of Dr. Seuss are reliable in delivering a distinctive product: a combination of bright imagination, flowing rhymes, crazy critters, and a sense of what kids really like to read.
Now that’s branding.