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Classic Book Collection: Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) - better known by his pen-name, Dr. Seuss - has sold millions and millions of his fantastically fun and lively stories. But what is it about these bright, bizarre books that has caused them to garner such great acclaim, and why are they still so popular today?

The Books

Dr. Seuss's wonderfully zany and colourful tales have enjoyed extraordinary success over the decades. His most popular book, Green Eggs and Ham (1960), has sold well over 8 million copies (and was originally written as a response to a bet that he couldn't write a book using just 50 different words!). His second most popular book, The Cat in the Hat, has sold well over 7 million copies. Other popular Dr. Seuss books include Oh, the Places You'll Go!, Hop on Pop and Fox in Socks. But what has made his books so incredibly popular - and why do they continue to be popular today?

Literature experts and readers agree on several reasons for the timeless appeal of Dr. Seuss's books, not least of which is simply the fact that they're brilliantly fun and exciting. The hugely imaginative characters, drawn in Dr. Seuss's iconic, exuberant style, appeal to children and adults alike, and the marvellously mad storylines are entertaining enough to engage even the most reluctant reader. In an interview for the Denver Post, children's literature expert Jen Robinson notes that 'the key to Dr. Seuss's enduring appeal lies in the spirit of playfulness that permeates his work'. In his stories, he 'encourages children and adults to look at the world in different ways, whether this means upside-down, from the top of a tree or from inside a tiny speck'. The childlike feel of Dr. Seuss's stories, on top of his experimentation with perspective and point of view, ensure his tales are truly enthralling and transport readers to a wonderfully wacky world. Similarly, in an interview for Vanderbilt News, children's literature expert Ann Neely comments that Dr. Seuss's books 'demonstrate his heart in a way that allows the reader to read, repeat and even sing his words. This readability is a key part of the enduring power of Dr. Seuss literature'.

Dr. Seuss's stories also make the challenge of learning to read an exciting exploration of words and sounds, rather than a boring chore. Using ingenious wordplay, Dr. Seuss has created an exciting celebration of language and phonics in his body of work. His consistent use of galloping, rhyming verse and sound repetition ensures that children learn quickly to match certain letters with certain sounds, but this learning process is far from tedious as children enjoy a plethora of comical words and phrases, curious characters and spellbinding storylines. The books are therefore popular with parents whose children are beginning to read or are reluctant to read. William Porter writes for the Denver Post: 'Most important, his books have introduced millions of children to the joys of reading and the magic of wordplay.' Jen Robinson agrees: 'I think it's this combination of playfulness and lyricism that makes Dr. Seuss's works stand the test of time.'

The rollicking rhymes and sing-song sentences ensure that his books appeal to grown-ups, too. Adults can appreciate the skill that goes into creating such perfectly-crafted verse, and reading it aloud is fun. Older readers also come to understand that Dr. Seuss's ostensibly silly stories often feature important moral messages that continue to be relevant today. Perhaps the clearest example of this is The Lorax. Zoe Williams writes for the Guardian: 'Of all Dr Seuss's books, The Lorax, published in 1971, has the most obvious echo into the future, with its premonitory synthesis of greed and environmental destruction.' The themes in Dr. Seuss's books endure, and in the process of reading them, readers absorb important lessons.

Where to Start

If you'd like to start reading Dr. Seuss's books but don't know where to begin, you may wish to start with his most popular titles. His top three bestselling books include Green Eggs and Ham, in which the narrator is sure he doesn't like green eggs and ham - until he tries them, of course; The Cat in the Hat, which features a fun-loving feline and his mischievous minions; and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, in which two children encounter all sorts of strange creatures. These quirky tales constitute a great introduction to Dr. Seuss.

Alternatively, you may wish to progress chronologically, starting with Dr. Seuss's very first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Next up would be The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) - which, unlike most of his works, is written in prose rather than rhyming verse - followed by The King's Stilts (1939) and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940).

A Brief Biography of Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on 2 March 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, graduating in 1925, and then attended Oxford University to study for a PhD in English literature. He met Helen Palmer at Oxford, the woman who would become his wife. After marvelling at his drawings, she persuaded him to abandon his PhD and instead pursue a career in illustration.

Dr. Seuss married Helen Palmer in 1927 and moved back to New York City. He wrote his first children's book in 1931, an ABC of fanciful creatures, but it did not find a publisher. In the same year, Helen Palmer learned that she could not have children.

Finally, in 1937, Dr. Seuss's first children's book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published. It was based on a real street near his childhood home in Springfield. Before publication, it was rejected by more than 20 publishers, and Geisel had been about to burn it out of frustration. Fortunately, a timely encounter with an old friend led to its publication. In 1984, Dr. Seuss would win the Pulitzer Prize for his body of work, including over 45 hugely popular children's books.

Dr. Seuss became a political cartoonist during World War II, and helped to create a series of animated short films featuring the blundering soldier, Private Snafu. The films were used to instruct service personnel about military matters including security, proper sanitation and booby traps.

Helen Palmer suffered from a string of illnesses in the years leading up to her death, including cancer, and she committed suicide in 1967. The following year, Dr. Seuss married Audrey Dimond, with whom he had been having an affair.

In September 1991, Dr. Seuss died of mouth cancer, aged 87. In 2004, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.