Children’s Book Writer

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Dr. Seuss. Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904–91), Dr. Seuss, was already an experienced advertising man, political cartoonist, and children’s-book author and illustrator when Houghton Mifflin commissioned him, in 1957, to write a “new reader” primer of 225 vocabulary words for the school market. He came up with The Cat in the Hat , hailed as something new, a “karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane, and Spot,” as the blurb on the back of every hardcover copy still says.

In fact the chop, if such it was, had been delivered long before. From And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) to Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990), Dr. Seuss’s 44 books follow the same pattern. He presented, in Mulberry Street , something original and fairly clever (bright silly pictures, easy rhymes) and rendered it, through repetition, both pedestrian and shrill.

Possibly the best thing to be said about his career is that his “karate chop” primer helped launch the Beginner Books series, which gave scope to better writers.

Underrated

Herbert S. Zim. Walk into any public library’s youth services section, pick any science or nature book published between the 1940s and the 1970s, and chances are good you will have in hand a volume by the prolific Herbert S. Zim (1909–94).

Zim began teaching summer-school science classes in New York as a teenager. After earning a Ph.D. from Columbia University, he devoted himself to science and science teaching and then to the full-time writing and editing of juvenile science books. (His first, tellingly enough, was Science Interests and Activities of Adolescents , 1940.) He taught at Columbia, the University of Illinois, and the University of Miami and served as an educational consultant for a number of publishing firms and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was the founding editor of the Golden Guides series of nature books, pocket-sized field guides for young amateur enthusiasts first published in 1949.

He wrote, co-wrote, or edited more than 100 books for young people whose titles show subjects ranging from Bones to Snails to Trucks to Caves and Life to The Universe .

Zim had two great gifts, which he balanced perfectly in his writing. He had a transparently simple prose style and an ability to associate hard facts with the right word-pictures to fit in with a child’s daily life and the interests that had led the child to open the book to begin with. In the first five pages of Codes and Secret Writing we get a subtle overview of the significance of the alphabet, of the history of literacy, and of world language use, all while Zim makes us feel like secret agents learning vital job skills. It takes him even less space, in Elephants , to teach us the animal’s preferred terrain, feeding habits, herd life, and the methods of capture to which it is subject. (Who knew that tame elephants can calm wild ones?) In Ostriches we learn to identify the pectoral muscles of all flying birds, beginning with chickens and their “white meat, which so many people like.” Once we read it, of course it makes sense, and we won’t forget it. But who knew?

He made science sensible, not only in that he clarified complex information but in that he helped you this afternoon with your new hobby: “Don’t try to memorize the details… . Learn to know the whole bird as one total picture, since one glance at a moving bird may be all you’ll get.”