Fictional characters with moral integrity | Sunday Observer

Fictional characters with moral integrity

During our formative years most of us read children’s stories with a moral tag. Aesop’s fables, Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and Panchatantra had a lasting appeal to us. However, some of us may have missed Dr Seuss’s delightful stories profusely illustrated by the author.

‘Dr Seuss’ was the pen name of Theodore Geisel who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904. He learnt many valuable lessons from his father who used to practise target shooting for a half-hour every morning. He wanted to break the world target-shooting record. Theodore (Ted) learnt the first lesson of the importance of seeking perfection.

As his father was the town’s park commissioner, Ted used to visit the zoo located in the park. Unlike other children who visited the zoo, he began to draw zany-looking animals while learning many things about the animal species and their temperaments. Ted’s essay on ‘If I ran the zoo’ tells about a little child who imagined the strange creatures he would capture for his own zoo.

Medals

During World War II Giesel’s Boy Scout Troop sold a record number of war bonds and they were to be presented with medals, by the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The President praised their efforts and called out their names to be presented with medals. Everybody received medals except Ted. The President searched his list, looked at Ted and said, “What is this little boy doing here?” Ted’s name had been omitted inadvertently. He carried the shame throughout his life and refrained from giving public speeches. He still heard people say, “What is he doing here?”

Ted was never a bright boy. His high school teacher told him, “You will never learn to draw.” Even his Dartmouth College fraternity determined that he would never succeed in life. When he joined Oxford University in England, he was often bored with lectures. One day he drew a cow with wings in the classroom and heard a female voice whispering, “That’s a very fine flying cow.” When he turned his head he saw a pretty girl with blonde hair and a devilish grin. Later he came to know that she was Helen Palmer who was reading for her PhD in English Literature. He fell in love with her and got married to her in 1927. As he had no money for the wedding he drew eggnog-drinking turtles to a magazine and received a modest payment.

Soon Ted dropped out of Oxford and studied briefly at Sorbonne in Paris. After moving to New York City, Helen had to support the family by teaching. Ted became a cartoonist for a magazine which was about to close down. Without getting frustrated he continued to draw cartoons using his sense of humour. When he drew a cartoon of a dragon threatening a knight, the knight got annoyed. But the cartoon had the desired effect on the wife of an advertising executive. Ted was hired to draw more strange flying creatures under the slogan “Quick, Henry, the flit!” The flit cartoons brought him a good income to overcome the Depression.

Children’s author

After working there for 12 years Ted took a vacation in Europe. While travelling he listened intently to the beat of the ship’s engines. After returning to New York he wove those rhymes into a children’s book titled ‘And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.’ The story was about a little boy who imagined improbable occurrences on the street where he lived. Ted used the pseudonym “Dr Seuss” using his middle name and the academic title he never earned at Oxford. However, his manuscript was rejected by 27 publishers. They told him that the story was silly and the rhymes nonsensical. In 1937 he took his manuscript to an editor who agreed to publish it. When the book came out of print, Dr Seuss became a household name.

After some time Ted came to know that children were not sufficiently motivated to read story books. Then he took up the challenge of writing for first-graders with a vocabulary of 200 words. Then he drew a brassy-looking cat with a stove-pipe hat and a tail coiled like a telephone cord. The funny cat captured the children’s hearts. In 1957 he published “The Cat in the Hat” which had sold more than 600,000 copies up to now. The book inspired the children’s reading habit tremendously.

In 1958 he and his wife were hired as heads of Beginners’ Books, a newly-formed division of the prestigious Random House limited vocabulary stories. They changed the way children read. In 1959 Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a story with an engaging storyline using only 50 words. Cerf agreed to give him $50 if he did it. In 1960 Ted wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” using exactly 50 words.

Exotic characters

Seuss invented exotic characters such as “Mr Gump and his many-humped Wump”, lands like “Whoville” and “Hippo-no-Humps” and foods like “Green eggs” and “Ham.” His characters were powerless but they had moral integrity. He was not a prolific writer as he was a perfectionist. He took nearly one year to write a book and illustrate it with funny-looking creatures. His books became popular among children because of the simple language and small words.

Theodore Geisel is no more but Dr Seuss will live forever. He has left behind The Cat with his anarchic wit and boisterous charm. The following poem from “The Cat and the Hat” shows the author’s literary skills:

“Then we saw him pick up all the things that were down.

He picked up the cake, and the rake, and the gown,

And the milk, and the strings, and the books, and the dish,

And the fan, and the cup, and the ship, and the fish.

And he put them away. Then he said, “That is that.”

And then he was gone with the tip of his hat.”

“The Cat and Hat” is a book about an eccentric stranger (a cat) who comes into the house of two young children named Sally and Sam. They were having a dull day as their mother had gone out. Suddenly the cat comes and reassures them that their mother will not mind him or his ticks! This offers an opportunity to talk about what is trust and whom to trust. The concept may have been drilled into the children very often, but the book offers them a vantage point. After reading the book they will be able to further develop why they have their opinions not just what is right action in a strange situation.

Giesel wrote the book in response to a debate in the United States about literacy in early childhood and the ineffectiveness of traditional primers. He was asked to write a more entertaining primer by William Spaulding whom he had met during World War II and who was then director of the Houghton Miffin. However, Giesel was already under contract with Random House, the two publishers agreed to a deal. Houghton Miffin published the education edition and Random House published the trade edition which was sold in bookshops.

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