Beloved children’s illustrator and author Dr. Seuss has had an incalculable impact upon generations of young readers. He once told Parade magazine, “Old men on crutches tell me, ‘I’ve been brought up on your books.'” It’s no wonder: he created some of the most memorable and unique characters in the canon of children’s literature. His catchy rhymes are permanently fixed in the memories of countless booklovers (say it with me: “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish …”)
To paraphrase the Cat in the Hat himself, learning to write like Dr. Seuss is fun, “but you have to know how.” Let’s find out how, right here and right now!
Who is Dr. Seuss?
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts, near Mulberry Street, which he would memorialize 33 years later in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1925, he went to Oxford but dropped out before getting his doctorate in English Literature, a degree he awarded his pseudonym, which he began using around this time.
During the late 1920s and 30s, Seuss worked as a freelance cartoonist. In 1928, he got a job in the Standard Oil advertising department and stuck with it for a decade and a half while attempting to make a career in children’s literature, starting with an illustration contract from Viking Press. Success did not come quickly, however. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, his first children’s book, was rejected 27 times before being published in 1937.
Two decades later, Seuss was still struggling. Then, in 1957, he published The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which became immensely popular. Other hits like One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! soon followed.
By the end of his career, Seuss had published more than 60 books, which today have sold upwards of 600 million copies worldwide. He died on Sept. 24, 1991, in La Jolla, California.
How to write like Dr. Seuss
Zany though Dr. Seuss’ writing style may be, there’s a method to the madness. Here are five simple tips that will make your next poem sound solidly Seussian.
1. Start with two big, scary words: Anapestic Tetrameter
Don’t be afraid! This part is the hardest, but it’s also the most rewarding.
According to the Poetry Foundation, Seuss started writing poetry for children by chance. “Returning from Europe by boat in 1936, he amused himself by putting together a nonsense poem to the rhythm of the ship’s engine. Later he drew pictures to illustrate the rhyme.”
That rhythm is known as anapestic tetrameter.
Anapestic tetrameter is the type of poetry that Seuss used in his most popular books. Each line of a poem written with this kind of rhythm (that’s the “meter” part) has four (that’s the “tetra” part) anapests (wait … what’s an anapest?)
An anapest is a group of three syllables that has the following pattern:
In other words, each line of a poem written in anapestic tetrameter is 12 syllables long and sounds like this famous Christmas poem when read out loud:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
To repeat: each line of the poem contains four sets of a three-syllable pattern that sounds like “dum-dum-DUM.” But don’t be afraid to break the lines up just for fun, as Seuss does in The Cat in the Hat:
“But I like to be here.
Oh, I like it a lot!”
Said the Cat in the Hat
To the fish in the pot.
“I will NOT go away.
I do NOT with to go!
And so,” said the Cat in the Hat,
I will show you another good game that I know!”
Rendered in proper anapestic tetrameter (one more time: 12 syllables per line, unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED pattern), the text would be:
“But I like to be here. Oh, I like it a lot!”
Said the Cat in the Hat to the fish in the pot.
“I will NOT go away. I do NOT with to go!
And so,” said the Cat in the Hat, “So so so …
I will show you another good game that I know!”
Having trouble remembering all the details of anapestic tetrameter? Just memorize this little mnemonic I made up.
Common rhyme patterns found in Seuss’ poetry are AABB, ABAB, and ABCB. Which brings us to …
2. Utter nonsense!
If you can’t make it rhyme, just invent a word, as Seuss does at the outset of his 1961 story, “The Sneetches.”
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.
While you’re at it, make up some fantastical creatures, too. Sneetches, the Grinch, the Lorax, Thing One and Thing Two — it doesn’t matter if you can explain what they actually are. Just make them anthropomorphic, colorful and quirky, then send them on an adventure.
3. Keep it simple, and repeat, repeat, repeat
Sometimes restriction can unleash your creativity. This was certainly true for Seuss. As A&E Television explained in 2014, “A major turning point in [Seuss’] career came when, in response to a 1954 LIFE magazine article that criticized children’s reading levels, Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked him to write a children’s primer using 220 vocabulary words.”
That “children’s primer” was the groundbreaking picture book The Cat in the Hat.
When you limit the number and complexity of the words you use in your poem, repetition will naturally follow. This is a feature, not a bug. Not a bug, not a bug, it’s a feature, not a bug!
4. Ask questions
Questions are an important part of Seuss’ poems. Characters ask each other questions (“Do you like green eggs and ham?”). They ask the reader questions (“Should we tell her about it? Now, what SHOULD we do? Well … what would YOU do if your mother asked you?”). And, ultimately, they encourage readers to ask themselves questions after the book is over via our fifth and final writing tip ….
5. Include a lesson
As Rien Fertel notes, the books of Dr. Seuss aren’t complex at first glance. “Nearly all adhere to the same basic plot: the protagonist encounters a new world (a new street, new zoo, new alphabet, an egg or pair of siblings to babysit) and chaos ensues (strange creatures! letters! and words!) set to rhyme.”
But when you take a closer look, many of Dr. Seuss’ most enduring tales are built around a didactic theme, or a “moral.”
The Sneetches and Other Stories contains messages about tolerance, diversity, and compromise. The Lorax is an environmental fable. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a neo-Dickensian entreaty for generosity of spirit during the holidays.
Include a moral in your story, but avoid a preachy or heavy-handed tone. Dr. Seuss’ style is, above all, whimsical and light-hearted.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.