29 JULY, 2015
By: Maria Popova
“Oh boy! It is something to make a mind up.”
Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him “a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history’s greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many — including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children’s books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.
In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known “adult” book of nudes, it was an animal book — The Cat in the Hat — that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.
But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.
In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel’s widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).
Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has — like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children’s books, for there is no such thing as writing “for children” — a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups — the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we’ve shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.
We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father’s permission to choose one — and only one — pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss’s famous imaginary beings.
Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, “Make up your mind” — the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.
Or the dog?
It is something
to make a mind up.
Then I looked at Kay.
I said, “What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.
We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon.”
The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose — except we never find out which creature they chose.
Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life’s dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice — what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: “I don’t much care where … so long as I get somewhere.“
“I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.”
The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.
The story’s protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss’s 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children’s book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.
Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss’s aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith — the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life — turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss’s later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:
I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.
A spread from 'What Pet Should I Get?' as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.
In the afterword, the editors at Random House add a thoughtful addendum to the otherwise timeless Dr. Seuss story, pointing out a critical aspect of how times have changed:
Pets are life-changing. They greet us like heroes when we walk in the door, comfort us when we are sad, and love us unconditionally. Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in the United States, but these wonderful, vulnerable animals can easily live for over a decade and are dependent on us for their needs. So committing to caring for a pet as a cherished, not captive, companion is a big decision.
Choosing where to get your pet is also very important. When Dr. Seuss wrote What Pet Should I Get? over fifty years ago, it was common for people to simply buy dogs, cats, and other animals at pet stores. Today animal advocates encourage us to adopt them from a shelter or rescue organization and warn us never to purchase pets from places that are supplied by puppy mills. We wholeheartedly agree and completely support this recommendation.
Complement the wholly delightful What Pet Should I Get? with the secret art of Dr. Seuss, then revisit this fascinating cultural history of thinking with animals.
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