Listen to part of a lecture in a children's literature class.
Today we'll start looking at the most important children's book authors of the twentieth century.
And I'd like to start with an author-illustrator whom some of you probably grew up reading: Dr. Seuss... his actual name was Theodor Seuss Geisel.
Geisel's work was hugely popular among beginning readers and their parents, but it wasn't always considered "literature" or subjected to serious academic inquiry until relatively recently.
In fact, not only weren't his books considered literature, but they weren't always considered good schoolbooks.
In the late-1950s and even through the '60s, U.S. teachers resisted Seuss books because they perceived them as having a comic-book style—fun, maybe, but not... uh, not appropriate for the classroom.
None of Geisel's books individually won him a Pulitzer Prize, and he didn't receive any top children's literary awards, either.
Although the Pulitzer Prize Committee did give him a citation in 1984 for his, ah [reciting quote] "special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents." But again, that wasn't until 1984.
Perhaps one reason his books weren't taken seriously is that even though they often use rhyme, you wouldn't call him a great poet.
Geisel's rhyme schemes are very simple, and often, to make things rhyme, he'd use silly names for his imaginary creatures—like, uh, the "Grinch" and "sneetches."
In fact, one book features 34 pairs of rhymed words, but only eight of those pairs consist entirely of real words. The rest are made-up words.
Geisel also illustrated his own books and created lots of highly memorable characters from a visual standpoint.
Yet, as far as his artistic talent, no one's ever really called him a "great" artist or "great" illustrator.
For his human characters, he pretty much drew the same face over and over; except for minor accessories, all the people in his books look the same.
Not exactly something you'd be encouraged to do in art school! And the way he drew even nonhuman characters was dismissed by many critics as being overly simplistic.
His landscapes, on the other hand, they are simple, but they're also extremely clever.
He had this uncanny knack for creating the illusion of great distance with some very simple shapes and lines.
But what about from a pedagogical standpoint?
Well, let's consider Geisel's most famous book, The Cat in the Hat.
Now, in a way, this book, The Cat in the Hat, captures the essence of Geisel's particular genius as a children's author.
Geisel actually wrote it in response to an article written in 1954 by an acclaimed novelist named John Hersey.
In this article, Hersey criticized the textbooks being used in elementary schools, uh, to teach children to read.
He called the books boring, contrived, and utterly humorless.
After seeing Hersey's article, Geisel must've wondered what made the books so dull. And one thing he found was... they used only words from the Dolch list.
The Dolch list contained a few hundred common sight words—words like, well, "cat" and "hat."
At the time, the Dolch list was widely adhered to by publishers of textbooks for beginning readers.
Well, using only words from the Dolch list, Geisel tapped into his fertile imagination, and... the result was an incredibly funny and engaging storyline about a talking cat that convinces a brother and sister to let him make a huge mess in their house while their mother is away.
Another character, a talking fish, tries to warn the children that they'll be blamed for the cat's crazy antics.
You can really feel the tension building up in those kids as the cat makes the house messier and messier.
Ultimately, the house gets straightened up in the nick of time.
And the kids are left speechless when their mom shows up and casually asks if anything interesting happened in her absence.
The kids, and presumably Geisel's readers, are left thinking: Should they tell the truth? And that's where the book ends. [Slight pause for dramatic effect]
Brilliant. There aren't too many authors who can set up a moral dilemma like this and then get children to think about it for themselves.