Tuesday, October 11

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories

by Dr. Seuss
introduction by Charles D. Cohen
Random House  2011

Seven previously published magazine stories by the late Bard of Beginner Books, collected in book form for the first time.

The story of this collection has been in the news a lot lately, and certainly been on a lot of folks' radar since its publication announcement in the spring. The idea that there was enough Seuss that hadn't been seen widely since the 1950s is certainly newsworthy, although the nostalgia market being what it is it's impossible to not fear that the collection would consist of inferior material deliberately abandoned by Theodore Geisel for good reason. That said, with a market that consists of a half century full of people who learned to read on Seuss titles there was no way you could risk the reputation of the master by putting out an inferior product. No, it would be impossible to toss of a collection of rejects and risk the ire of Boomers who would pillory those attempting to profit from junk.

The Bippolo Seed is, like others, a collection of tales featuring familiar Seuss characters, animals, morals, and above all, that cadence, that anapestic tetrameter that is as distinctly Seuss as iambic pentameter is to Shakespeare. To read the book, to start a Seuss story new to the eye, it is almost impossible to not begin by reading aloud. It's as if something deep is tapped in the root memory of our reading brain that triggers this connection between when we first learned to read and how one is "supposed" to read Seuss. There is probably a paper on cognitive science about this (or if there isn't there should be) and to do so, to read this Seuss collection aloud, reveals some interesting information about these early stories and the development of that cadence we know by heart and memory.

Gustav's original magazine appearance
Writing for magazines, space was necessarily limited. Seuss was either asked or pitched his stories to fill two or four or five pages (best to fill a layout) and his illustrations would need to fit around the text, and vice versa. In some cases the magazine pages would contain multiple layouts on a single page. The effect this has is that there are large chunks of text to accompany a single illustration, and with the stories in The Bippolo Seed already we can feel, intrinsically, that something isn't quite right. The lines are long, longer than they would be for a beginning reader, occasionally spilling into the next line in a way that reads far more complicated than their later Beginner Book components. They also explain more than they show, no doubt another necessary component of their magazine straitjacket. But then, of course, these were stories meant to be read to a child, no by a child. Their presentation in an adult magazine was clearly aimed at parents (mothers) to use at storytime. Lap-sitters weren't expected to follow along with the text, or make connections between pictures and language the way they would with The Cat in the Hat or even Horton Hears a Who.

To be sure, these aren't second-rate Seuss stories, nor are they the way the good Doctor would have chosen to present them in book form had he the chance to come back to this world and guide us. "Gustav, the Goldfish" already got the book treatment when his wife at the time Helen Palmer converted it to Fish Our of Water, though seeing the story told in rhyme gives it a greater feeling of urgency. "The Bippolo Seed" with it's tale of endless wishing and greed follows the typical Seussian mold of a cumulative story that would sit nicely between If I Ran the Zoo, though a more direct connection can be found in "The Great Henry McBride" and his daydreaming of multiple occupations – from a time when holding down more than one job wasn't out of economic necessity!  "The Rabbit, the Bear, and the Zinniga-Zanniga," beyond being a mouthful that can get tricky to catch the rhythms, offers a story of quick-thinking that would be suitable filler as a shorter story in any Seuss collection. "Steak for Supper" and it's Mulberry Street location suggests a possible sequel to the book that started it all back in 1937, and "The Strange Shirt Spot" has seen print before... as the stain-in-the-tub sequence from The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Of the seven stories presented the weakest and most derivative is "Tadd and Todd" which suggests Seuss' attempt to give his spin to another pair of twin T's, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, though with a more post-Freudian case of identity crisis.

text in search of an illustration (or two). double click for a larger view
If these stories can be said to be lacking anything it is more illustrations. Naturally, if they had more illustrations they wouldn't have fit the magazines, nor would they be collectible in a single book. I remember when The Lorax originally appeared as a magazine feature (yes, I am that old) it didn't matter than I'd already read the story, I wanted the book version for its additional illustrations and that "real book" feel. As much as any master in the field, Seuss knew how to pace a story and set-up those page turns, and it's that touch that is missing here. The words sit in their little blocks, and the illustrations have been expertly reproduced and colored, but that sense of flow, those layouts that force the eye across the page, back and forth between word and image, that's missing here in The Bippolo Seed.

That said, there are few who can do what Dr. Seuss did, and even with their minor flaws and limitations, its nice that there is a new Seuss for a new generation to have as their own. And for those older Seuss fans its an even better reminder of what can and should be expected in terms of books for young readers.
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