By Steve Mihailovich
The Sept. 27 release of “The Bippalo Seed and Other Lost Stories” by Dr. Seuss could force Grinches, Sneetches and Loraxes to make room for what might be the next member of that venerable pantheon: the Wild Wheef. The Wheef joins the Icka, Gritch, Grickle and other fanciful characters in the new Dr. Seuss book based on a collection of old stories that have been all but forgotten since their publication in
magazine in the early 1950s.
While the posthumous release of seven stories by one of La Jolla’s most renowned residents, Theodore Geisel, might appear dubious on the surface, the stories are the precursors of the rhythm, rhyme and rich illustrations that would catapult Dr. Seuss into the avant-garde of children’s literature, according to the stories’ discoverer, Dr. Charles Cohen.
“If you hear there’s going to be a book of new stories 20 years after somebody dies, it’s reasonable to think someone found something at the bottom of a drawer and dusted off the paper clips and the crumbs,” said Cohen. “That’s what I didn’t want people to think because it’s just not true. I was going to say I hope people will feel that this does him justice, but I don’t have to hope that. These are his quality stories. I know they are.”
A dentist in western Massachusetts, Cohen said he has been collecting rare documents, drawings and memorabilia by and relating to Dr. Seuss since 1988. In that time, he became such a leading expert on the subject that Geisel’s publisher, Random House, selected him to write a biography on Dr. Seuss for the centennial of his birth in 2004.
Cohen said he didn’t acquire the seven stories simultaneously, but rather as part of his more than 20-year accumulation of Seuss object that has resulted in a database of 33,725 entries at last count, though not all of them are actual items. Cohen pursued those stories and others on the Internet after continuously running across references to them.
The seven stories were picked from the 30 similarly obscure stories Cohen possesses to become the 45th children’s book written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss because these had all the elements readers have come to expect, Cohen noted.
“There are extremely strong stories and in addition, cumulatively amongst these, you get a very satisfying feeling of having all of those Seuss buttons pushed — the moral, the writing, the illustrations — all of those things,” he said.
Aside from the content, the stories are even more valuable because of the context in which they were created. Citing historical accounts, Cohen said the stories were written when Geisel had just realized the style that would eventually lead to a revolution in how children learned to read.
The seven “Bippalo Seed” stories were such a pinnacle in Dr. Seuss’s early career, that the reader will discover recognizable traces of plots and characters that were to become the basis of the author’s later, more famous works, Cohen added.
“That’s what these stories really are,” he said. “They are an experiment of how (Geisel) could use his talents with his rhythm and his rhyme; this thing that makes kids able to memorize a whole story when they’re three-years-old even though they’re not supposed to be able to read until they’re six or seven; and get kids to be interested in reading at a younger and younger age. There are all the important things you want children to learn about. This is something we expect from Dr. Seuss.”
The merits of the new 72-page Dr. Seuss book parallel that of its author, according to Lynda Claassen, director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UCSD and curator of the 10,000-piece Dr. Seuss Collection there. She said that Dr. Seuss books continue to be top sellers, with “Oh The Places You’ll Go” the No. 1 gift at graduations.
“The things he wrote about are the things people still care about,” Claassen said. “His artistic and literary efforts together create that timelessness. They still mean something.”
Geisel’s widow, Audrey, said she didn’t know him when he wrote the stories found in “The Bippalo Seed and Other Lost Stories.” Although she’s not surprised that people still cherish her late husband’s stories, she still can’t pinpoint the attraction. Just like his characters, Dr. Seuss has entered his own pantheon, she said.
“Like Aesop, the Brothers Grimm and others, you can’t put your finger on it,” she said. “On and on it goes. It’s my life now. I’m totally wrapped up in all the things that Ted was wrapped up in until he could not wrap anymore. Now he’s the lovely treasure chest when you enter the Seuss house and I’m the glass on the door. It’s beautiful.”