Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Seuss’

02 MARCH, 2012

The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes

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What Peeping Toms have to do with failure and the expectations of genius.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss, was a legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, and a lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf — that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

Geisel wrote in the foreword:

A beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement has too long been gathering dust in the archives.”

The humorous story is based on the Lady Godiva legend, according to which in 1037 the Earl of Coventry’s wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry, protesting against her husband’s unfair taxes. The citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain indoors, shuttered, as she rode. But one man, Peeping Tom, peered out and was then struck blind.

The book, however, was a complete flop. Ten thousand copies were printed on the first run, and only about 2,500 were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas eventually went out of print, causing Geisel to later say:

I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.

Absurd as they might be, and oddly unerotic despite the nudity, the illustrations are a treat, perhaps in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, or perhaps because they offer endearing reassurance that even genius can falter.

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Bippolo Seed: Seven Rare Dr. Seuss Stories Brought to Light

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How eBay uncovered a buried literary treasure, or what a Massachusetts dentist has to do with vintage magazines.

It must be the season for posthumous anthologies of treats by beloved children’s authors. After Shel Silverstein’s Every Thing Thing On It comes The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories — a fantastic new collection of seven rarely seen stories written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, published in magazines between 1948 and 1959. But what’s even more remarkable than the book itself is the story of how it came to be.

In 2001, “dentist by profession and Seussologist by obsession” Charles Cohen, discovered the first of these lost stories in vintage magazines on eBay and set out to find the rest, eventually acquiring multiple copies of some. He then started listing these extra copies on eBay, noting the lost Seuss stories they contained. The listings caught the eye of Random House art director Cathy Goldsmith, who had worked on books with Seuss himself. The rest was history.

In the 50s, and in the 40s before that, this was the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway tried out stuff in short stories in magazines. And Ted was among them. This is the point at which Dr. Seuss is becoming Dr. Seuss.”

More than just a literary gem, which it certainly is, The Bippolo Seed is also a wonderful embodiment of two of today’s most beautiful phenomena: the notion that anyone with a passion and an vision can leave an imprint on culture, as Cohen did in discovering these buried treasures, and the power of a great, curious curator in bringing that vision to the forefront of culture, as Goldsmith did in discovering Cohen.

Images courtesy of Random House

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Tales for Little Rebels: Radical Politics in Famous Children’s Books

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What Dr. Seuss has to do with gender politics, or how Carl Sandburg carried out anti-war propaganda.

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children’s books, especially children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grownups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project’s proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.”

Jack Zipes writes in the book’s introduction:

The very idea of ‘radical children’s literature’ may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children’s literature and politics. But children’s literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: ‘A. In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.’ And, next to a picture of a Bible, ‘B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.’ The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.”

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children’s literature are, arguing that morality and politics are both embedded in

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ […] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.”

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children’s books — in Blexbolex’s People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau’s Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann’s That’s How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we’re given about how the world works.

via Meta Filter; images courtesy of NYU Press

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08 AUGUST, 2011

Letters to Children from Cultural Icons on the Love of Libraries

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A reading manifesto from Dr. Seuss, or what space ships have to do with fairy godmothers and civil rights.

In the spring of 1971, just before the opening of Michigan’s first public library in Troy, an audacious librarian by the name of Marguerite Hart set out to inspire the city’s youngsters to read and love the library. So she dreamed up a letter-writing campaign, inviting dozens of cultural luminaries — writers, actors, musicians, politicians, artists — to share what made reading special for them and speak to the importance of libraries. She got 97 letters in return, spanning 50 states and a multitude of occupations, including notes from such icons as Dr. Seuss, Neil Armstrong, E.B. White and Isaac Asimov. The collection became known as Letters to the Children of Troy and is available online in its entirety, from beloved children’s book illustrator Edward Ardizzone’s four-page hand-written letter, to the charming doodle of artist Hardie Gramatky, to the marvelous letterheads of various state senators. Gathered here are a few favorites from it, with a semi-secret wish that some thoughtful indie publisher would turn this into a beautiful book that belongs in a library.

Dear Children of Troy

Your library is more full of good things than a candy store or a pirate’s chest. What you get from books is not only pleasurable and valuable but it lasts all the rest of your life.

I send my love to all of you.” ~ Ben Spock

A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your questions answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.” ~ E.B. White

Dear Boys and Girls:

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you — and most of all, a gateway to a better and happier and more useful life.” ~ Isaac Asimov

This note from the Mayor of Cleveland makes one wish today’s government would be full of more people like him.

As a young person, I was encouraged by my mother, my teachers and librarians to read for recreation, for information and for knowledge. Let me encourage you, as they encouraged me; for this country, despite all its failures and present inconsistencies, does promise and deliver much to those who prepare themselves.” ~ Carl B. Stokes

Here’s Helen Gurley Brown, one of the longest-tenured magazine editors-in-chief in history, spearheading Cosmopolitan for 32 years, also the author of the 1962 cult-classic, Sex and the Single Girl:

Dear Children:

Did you ever think of all the people you could be meeting at your library? Why — acrobats, singers, baseball players, knights in armour, kings, queens, elephants, dolls, jacks-in-the-box, angels, fairy godmothers, actors, astronauts, tuba-players — in fact, anyone you wish, through books!

You’ll never forget these friends of fantasy-land once you know what warm companions they are. Happy exploring!” ~ Helen Gurley Brown

And the governor of Vermont, with a timely sentiment on empathy and civil rights just as women and blacks were beginning to enter the workforce with critical mass:

Read! It is nourishing, civilizing, worthwhile. Read! It destroys our ignorance and our prejudices. Read! It teaches us to understand our fellowman better and, once we understand him, it will be much easier to love him and work with him in a daily more complex society.” ~ Deane Davis

My favorite has to be Neil Armstrong:

Knowledge is fundamental to all human achievement and progress. It is both the key and the quest that advances mankind. The search for knowledge is what brought men to the moon; but it took knowledge already acquired to make it possible to get there.

How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on earth, in space or on the moon. Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well.” ~ Neil Armstrong

Explore the full collection in the Letters to the Children of Troy archive and, while you’re at it, consider donating to your public library. (Every month, I allocate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library.)

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