NEAL CONAN, host: One bright sunny day, a young duck named McKluck had a wonderful, wonderful piece of good luck. He was walking along when he spied on the ground a marvelous thing that is quite seldom found. 'Twas a small silver box, and it looked mighty old. And on top of the box, it was written in gold: Who finds this rare box will be lucky indeed for inside this box is a bippolo seed. Plant it and wish and then count up to three. Whatever you wish for, whatever it be, will sprout and grow out of a bippolo tree.
Well, from that style, everybody immediately recognizes the work of Dr. Seuss, of course, but those words will be unfamiliar unless you've been going over your copies of Redbook magazine from 1951. Charles Cohen, a dentist from Massachusetts, did just that, and he's brought seven Seuss stories back from obscurity. He'll join us in a moment. What did you learn from Dr. Seuss? Call us, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Charles Cohen is editor of "The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories," and he joins us now from New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. Congratulations.
Dr. CHARLES COHEN: Thank you very much, Neal. And your rendition of "The Bippolo Seed," I think, rivaled Neil Patrick Harris's.
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COHEN: He does it on the CD. Wonderful.
CONAN: Thank you very much. Did you know where to look? Or did you just have a stack of old Redbook magazines up in the attic?
COHEN: Well, neither, actually. What happened was that I was interested in finding out what Ted Geisel did other than his children's books. And when I first started looking into it, I found a bunch of misinformation. And being the type of personality that I am, I started digging and doing research. And as I was doing that, I was seeing references to certain names of stories that I've never heard of before. And at first I thought it was more misinformation, something that was misattributed to him or perhaps a parody that people mistook for being a real Dr. Seuss thing.
But when I tried to search them out, as I did for everything I was looking for back then, and when I started to find out that these might be real, I got all of the Redbooks over at the Boston Public Library, drove an hour and a half out there to see them and photocopied them and found out that these really were the real deal Dr. Seuss stories. And I imagined my reaction then as what readers now are sort of doing. I was thinking if these were really Dr. Seuss stories, how come nobody knows about them? So I was excited then, and I'm hoping that readers will be happy now.
CONAN: And it turned out that Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss, wrote these stories for Redbook magazine. They published them from time to time. They all have a strong moral, which, again, if you know your Dr. Seuss, you know that.
COHEN: Exactly. These stories are precisely what people will remember about Dr. Seuss. That's what so wonderful about these. These aren't some things that were half finished and had crumbs dusted off of them and new illustrations put in by someone else. These are things that were actually written by him, illustrated by him. And so you get the patented morals, which, you know, he doesn't beat the children over the head with it, of course. That's what so wonderful about him, but he manages to instill those great ideas in there.
You'll also see these fantastic beasts that - those are always part of my favorite thing when I open a new Dr. Seuss story, is you know, what kind of thing am I going to see that I've never seen before. And then also, just the rhythm and rhyme, you could tell from, as you said at the beginning, as soon as you hear the way that these are written, you immediately identify them as Dr. Seuss.
CONAN: It turns out in your research that Dr. Seuss did a great deal more than just write those famous children's books.
COHEN: Oh, yes. Seven years ago, back in 2004, what we were calling the Seussentennial then, his 100th birthday, had he still been alive, Random House published my first book, "The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss." And that was a visual biography, we called it. It was a 400-page book, with 700 images. And I tried to expose the public to the variety - the huge variety of things that Ted Geisel did other than children's books. And it was really wonderful. Afterwards I was sort of bowled over. His widow, Audrey Geisel, sent me a note in which she said that you know more than anyone in the world about Ted. You know things that nobody in his family know - knew, and that just phenomenal at that time, and it's the same kind of thing now with these stories.
Apparently, from what I've heard, she had - didn't know they existed. These were written at the time before she had married Ted. They got married in 1968, so it was a good deal prior to that. But she is really excited now to - that these stories can be shared by new generations that otherwise these stories would have been lost to.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Charles Cohen is our guest. He's the editor of "The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories." And what you learned from Dr. Seuss? We'll start with Stephanie(ph), Stephanie with us from Lapeer in Michigan.
STEPHANIE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. I always...
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIE: ...loved Dr. Seuss. My mom read it to my brothers and I when were children, and I - my children are learning to read them themselves. I think it's more than just the fun way he speaks. I think there also is a message, and I think it's a little deeper than just, you know, be nice to each other kind of thing. I think, like in the case of "Yertle the Turtle," it's almost like a political aspect of it, showing how greed and things like that are - eventually crumble in on themselves, and I just - I don't know. I just love it to death.
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STEPHANIE: So I appreciate the things that you're doing.
CONAN: And the little guy, the guy at the bottom of the stack can bring down the great king.
STEPHANIE: That would be Mack, the same little lad.
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COHEN: I don't know if you're aware that "Yertle the Turtle" was based on Adolf Hitler.
STEPHANIE: Oh, no, I wasn't.
COHEN: Absolutely. So you're not incorrect about that. There's definitely a political message behind it.
STEPHANIE: And like I said, recently, my daughters are learning to read so recently we reread it and I listen to NPR all the time. And I couldn't help but point out the analogy between the two and how Dr. Seuss was right all along.
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CONAN: Stephanie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
STEPHANIE: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Jeremiah, Jeremiah with us from Glenwood Springs in Colorado.
JEREMIAH: Hi. So my question, I got some good messages from, like, "The Lorax," about preserving the environment, and I, you know, then the star-bellied Sneetches about segregation and acceptance and things like that. But if your guy here is - know - my question is, what Dr. Seuss's involvement was with the political cartoons around the war. There are some controversial characters and stuff depicting Japanese people and stuff like that, and I am curious if that was just about, you know, patriotism towards our cause or how that stands in line with the good messages, you know?
COHEN: Well, you have to remember, of course, what the caller is talking about is that back between 1940 and 1942, Ted Geisel did over 400 political cartoons for PM newspaper. In fact, he was doing political cartoons prior to that, in 1939, under the pseudonym of Tedd, with two Ds, T-E-D-D. He had an interest in political - in politics for quite a while. At that particular time, he was - his point of view was that, although he was of German descent, that America needed to get into the war against Germany, and as opposed to the various factions of wanting us to stay out of the war. So these cartoons that the caller is referring to mostly were aimed at trying to get us to participate in the war at the time.
There are - because of the nature of cartooning and the prevailing vision of things at that time, it was sort of a shorthand. If you drew a certain character, looked a certain way, it was clear that that was Adolf Hitler. If you drew them looking another way, that was Mussolini. So the caller, I guess, is - has probably read, perhaps in Richard Minear's book about the Japanese characters and how people might take offense today at the way that they were characterized. But it was pretty much a shorthand to show that this was one of the leaders over in Japan.
In my first book, there's a particular chapter that is about prejudice in Dr. Seuss and how he went from, in the 1920s, being someone who participated in that, because humor at that time was making fun of everyone. He made fun of - no matter what it was. It could be women, it could be Jews, it could be blacks, it could be Irish, it could be Swedish. He made fun of everybody because everyone did.
And then you have a transition through these political cartoons to the person who ends up being someone who promotes tolerance through books like "The Sneetches," where it doesn't matter if you have a star in your belly or not, through "Horton Hears A Who!" that, you know, a person's a person no matter how small. And it is a fascinating thing to see someone go through that transition. So I'm glad the caller brought it up.
JEREMIAH: Do we know what happened in his personal life that brought about that change?
COHEN: Absolutely. I don't know if we have time to go into it here. If you are interested, I strongly recommend - in "The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss," like I said, there's an entire chapter trying to pinpoint the exact time, a specific article that came out while he was working, that I believe may have been part of the transition. There are a lot of internal things. He had gone through a lot of prejudice as a person of German descent when he was a child. During World War I he was made fun at school, so there were seeds there. But I think that if you're interested, that'd probably be the best place to go for it.
CONAN: Jeremiah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JEREMIAH: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see. We go next to - this is Jim, and Jim's on the line with us from Rochester, New York.
CONAN: Go ahead, Jim. You're on the air.
JIM: Hey. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a long-time listener. The one thing that I know about Dr. Seuss is it taught me that the English language can be the best toy in the world.
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CONAN: And it's funny you should mention that. Charles Cohen, in your introduction, you point out that he got into fights sometimes with linguists who insisted that children were - could not - could only absorb so many words at such and such an age.
COHEN: Yes. There's a wonderful piece that he did for The New York Times Book Review in the '50s, in the mid '50s, where he talks about this. He has a character, a fictitious character he calls Orlo, and at that time he was pointing out that there are certain - there was a certain philosophy that if words try to penetrate the child's brain through their ears, they could absorb a great number of these words. But if they try to come in through the holes in their eyes, it was much more limited. And the idea was that people believed that you could only teach 300 words or so to children of a certain age. And basically he said that there's knowledge need to be rammed into Orlo's noodle. And you know, specifically, there were times and ages at which this ramming should take place, and he thought that that was a terrible way to approach it.
And that the times are changing, that with television at the time, that children were being exposed to, you know, moon launchings, and you could go see what the Himalayas were like, so a child of six had seen more than his 90-year-old grandfather had seen in his entire life; it was just a question of how that information that they already knew, how was that translated into these characters and into reading. So yeah, he had - this is one of the huge - this is probably the biggest legacy that Dr. Seuss has left. I mean we all love reading the stories, but the thing that he did was to get people to read at a younger and younger age, to not say you have to wait until seven or eight or even six, but to start getting people to read as early as age three.
And he did - this is what this book is about actually, "The Bippolo Seed," is that he discovered that – I mean there's a particular incident in which a three-year-old started reciting to him all of "Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose." And he said to the parents that, you know, I don't understand how he's doing that. I don't write for children of this age. How can he know the story? And what he learned was that through his language, through his use of rhythm and rhyme, as the caller was pointing out, through his playfulness, that children will be able to memorize an entire story even if they can't read it.
And he - at this point - and these are what these seven stories are about - he was experimenting, saying read these stories aloud, use my language, use these techniques that somehow get into children's brains so that they know the story, have these wonderful illustrations that he does that they can look at and understand the action of what's going on. The only thing now is those little weird characters, and it makes them want to read. How do I put the story and these pictures together with those little characters?
CONAN: We're talking with Charles Cohen. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's a couple of emails. This one is from David: I learned how to read from Dr. Seuss. I was sick in bed at age four, and my mother gave me "The Cat in the Hat" and another that I can't remember, but it also involved hats, lots and lots of hats. I think we're talking Bartholomew Cubbins here. She worked with me a bit, but I had lots of time alone. Before I recovered, I was able to read the books to her. So exactly to your point.
And this is an email from David: Far and away my favorite Dr. Seuss book has always been "The Lorax." It was the first thing that made me care about the environment in terms of its preservation. Also, as I would discern later in life, it seems to me a parallel for Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," what with the elderly man telling the next generation the tale of his failure to value the natural world and his attempt through the telling of the tale to absolve himself of his guilt. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," you think?
COHEN: That's fantastic. As an English major who ended up going into the sciences, I love when people drag me back into the arts. That's fantastic. I think that's a wonderful point to make. This is - I mean, certainly "The Lorax" was as much as an environmental poem as he points out, and you have the person passing on that information to that next generation. I think it's an excellent point. It's actually what I'm trying to do with this book, is to pass on these stories to the next generation that otherwise wouldn't have known they existed.
CONAN: Let's go to Ken, Ken with us from St. Louis.
KEN: This is an awesome subject. When I was younger, I read Dr. Seuss or tried to when I was younger, and I'd learned a lot of, you know, "The Cat and the Hat" and stuff like that. But one of the things that I discovered when I was - as an adult with two young children is the book "Oh, The Places You'll Go," and it is so, you know, visually appealing. The kids love it. And what we do on occasion is - we live in St. Louis - and we'll get in the car, we'll have the book, and we'll actually drive around St. Louis and have the kids pick where they want to go, and so it's an adventure for them. We can read the book. We can, you know, relate it. We can talk about different things. It's just fantastic.
CONAN: And that's the appropriate venue to read that book, which should, however, be prohibited to all commencement speakers. No one else should ever again...
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CONAN: ...give a commencement speech based on "Oh, The Places You'll Go."
COHEN: I want to know where the Cardinals will go tonight in St. Louis.
CONAN: Well, good luck to them.
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CONAN: You can read the full story of "The Bippolo Seed" at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Charles Cohen is the editor of "The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories." He's also a dentist, an avid Seuss fan. He joined us from New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks very much for your time today.
COHEN: Thank you, Neal, so much for having us on. I really appreciate it, and I hope people will enjoy this book.