May 09, 2013


Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat—The Art of Dr. Seuss. By Caroline M. Smith. Images compiled and edited by William W. Dreyer, Michael Reagan and Robert Chase Jr. The Chase Group/Andrews McMeel. $75.

The Robot Book. By Heather Brown. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Good books age well. The best ones do not seem to age at all. The books of Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) show every evidence of being ageless, and their author is as beloved now, more than 20 years after his death, as he was in life. He is also known these days as a more fully-formed human being, not “merely” an author of children’s books (not that there is anything “mere” about that). Ever since The Seven Lady Godivas became widely available in 1987 and showed a slightly risqué side to the good doctor, ever since The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss revealed sculptures, paintings and other “serious” (or at least gallery-worthy) Seuss art in 1995, it has become increasingly clear that Dr. Seuss (pronounced, incidentally, the German way, “Zoyce,” not “Soose”) was more than the sum of his kids’ books, no matter how marvelous those are. And so, in the spirit of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (“pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”), Caroline M. Smith, William W. Dreyer, Michael Reagan and Robert Chase Jr. have made it possible for readers to pay considerable attention to Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat. This is a revised and updated edition of a book originally titled, less elegantly, Secrets of the Deep, and although there is in fact a certain amount of depth here, it is the sort of depth into which readers will be delighted to plunge. It has all the warmth, sparkle and beauty of a dive into a clear sunlit ocean.

     Well, okay, maybe it isn’t quite that poetic, but my goodness, Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat is fun! Much of the enjoyment is in the form of sheer delight at viewing and re-viewing art that adults will remember loving as kids – and showing to their kids and expecting their kids to show to theirs. In addition, there are the Seussian marvels that were created before the first book for children, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) – a book rejected by 27 publishers, incidentally. The earlier work, in advertising, calendars and elsewhere, is filled with images that would later become iconic. Seeing them in their original forms is an absolutely wondrous experience – a retrospective one, to be sure, yet one filled with the deliciousness of the newly discovered, since these early ads and personal drawings and paintings have never been widely disseminated. Here you can see The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 1930 creation for The Dartmouth Club and a precursor of The Seven Lady Godivas (1939). Here are the original 1928 ads for “Flit,” an insecticide; drawings for Standard Oil (that is, Esso, which became Exxon, and which owned – among many other things – the insecticide Flit); amazing illustrations for Life and Judge magazines; and a series of World War II editorial cartoons that, in some cases, have surprising continuing relevance – one has Uncle Sam using a “mental insecticide” to get rid of the “racial prejudice bug” in people’s heads.  Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat is only partially chronological, tracing much of what Seuss (it is hard to think of him as Geisel) created over the years while cleverly interspersing many of the older drawings with later ones for which they were clearly prototypes (Horton the elephant, for example, was one of Seuss’s earliest creations, although not named until much later).  Also scattered about the book are comments by Seuss and writing by him that readers are unlikely ever to have seen, such as a November 17, 1957 article for The New York Review of Books.  Smith, Dreyer, Reagan and Chase have done a superb job with Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat by the simple-seeming expedient of stepping back and not appearing to have much to do with the book. Yet this is considerably harder than it looks. Clearly a lot of work and thought went into becoming so unobtrusive – making it seem as if all the Seussian drawings and paintings and writing just kind of sit there, flowing wonderfully from page to page, with minimal connective copy and very little that forces the reader to progress from one section to the next. The result of this unobtrusiveness is absolutely first-rate: a coffee-table book (for a sturdy coffee table: this tome is quite heavy) that will be picked up again and again, time after time and year after year, by the many, many, many kids and former kids who have delighted in Dr. Seuss and been delighted by him. One Seuss quotation in the book says it all, or almost all: “I don’t write for children – I write for people.” The only thing to add is that he drew and sculpted for people, too. Lots of people. Now and as far into the future as it is reasonably possible to see.

     Book concepts for kids do change, of course, and while it is inarguably true to say of Dr. Seuss that we shall never see his like again, it is also inarguable that other authors, other creators, will produce fascinating works for children in forms that not even Dr. Seuss, in his prime, captured. Take, for example, the immensely clever The Robot Book by Heather Brown. In a mere 12 heavy-cardboard pages, with texts even more minimal than those in Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat – indeed, so minimized that they almost fade into nonexistence – Brown incorporates the Seussian notion of plastic arts (he was a fine sculptor, bringing to three-dimensional life a number of the odd characters he drew) into a book that is 100% for children but that draws for some of its charm on, yes, The Wizard of Oz. Brown’s The Robot Book harks back – not overtly, but in a way that all parents will recognize – to the Tin Man’s plea for a heart, in both the movie and the L. Frank Baum book from which it was made. The visual and tactile elements in The Robot Book are so involving that even the youngest children will be absolutely entranced.  Parents will, too: the book is participatory, not at all passive, and will stimulate kids’ cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. Gorgeously created in three-dimensional, multicolored glory, Brown’s book takes children through a robot’s body, part by part, with every page having something to lift, turn, move or rotate.  The super-sturdy pages show a robot’s gears, nuts and bolts, connectors and more – and everything slides up and down, moves back and forth, rotates, or otherwise invites kids to a hands-on delight.  But that is not all: the book has a message, one that is simple and truly heartfelt.  For Brown explains that, despite all the wondrous things on the outside of the robot, it is what’s inside that really counts – and the final page displays the robot’s heart, within which are three gears (one large and two small) that interlock, moving together as children turn any one of them.  This is a book that young kids will want to explore again and again – and it is made strongly enough so they can do just that.  Well crafted, well thought out and just, well, delightful, it makes a wonderful gift for any child who is just waking up to motor abilities and story comprehension. It is about as different from the works of Dr. Seuss as it is possible to be, but it springs from the same sense of wonder, of delight, of “wow!” that the good doctor’s books produced, in very different ways, for so many years.

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