When Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) died in 1991, he left snippets of art, text and unfinished manuscripts about his office. Two books were nearly completed and published posthumously, "Daisy-Head Mayzie" in 1995 and "My Many Colored Days" two years later. His secretary mentioned to editor Janet Schulman about other sketches and uncompleted rhymes that had been tacked to a bulletin board. Seuss had put these ideas aside to finish "Oh, The Places You'll Go!", the last picture book he completed.
When Schulman saw the art and scribbles, there appeared to be no rhyme or reason to them. Certainly, there was no story line and little coherence to the 14 pages of colored-pencil sketches, each with a couplet in Seuss's hand. One page contained 20 possible names for an elementary school that he intended to write about. "It took me five years to figure out what to do with the material," said Schulman. "Seuss had created some wonderful characters, a setting and a few verses. But there was no story. I needed a couple of geniuses worthy of sharing the billing with Seuss."
In 1996, Schulman thought of Jack Prelutsky, who had written more than 30 books of children's verse and edited a number of anthologies, and Lane Smith, whose doodles in "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" (written by John Scieszka), earned a 1993 Caldecott Honor. They both share a characteristic with Dr. Seuss, claims Schulman: "All three never quite grew up." After legal arrangements with Prelutsky and Smith's publishers, "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!" took form. While poet and artist worked over phone and Internet on the project, they did not meet personally until interviewed recently on national television.
This is a story of the wonderful Diffendoofer School:
It looks like any other school
But we suspect it's not.
I think we're learning lots of things
Not taught at other schools.
and Miss Bonkers,
I'm not certain what she teaches
But I'm glad she teaches me . . .
a caring staff,
who are different-er than the rest . . .
and a principal who announces:
All schools for miles and miles around
Must take a special test,
To see who's learning such and such -
To see which school's the best.
Of course, the children at the Diffendoofer School pass the test because they have learned to think! Imagine that!
Dr. Seuss often provided social commentary about war and nuclear arms through books such as "The Lorax" and "The Butter-Battle Book." In "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!" he made a statement (with a little help from his friends) about schools that teach kids to "spit out" answers in a numskull fashion.
When I shared "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!" with a third grade recently, the children quickly picked up on the school that the Diffendoofer kids would have to go to if they failed the test, Flobbertown. All the Flobbertown kids are portrayed with square heads!
Prelutsky admits that he approached the book as a true collaboration. "I sort of pretended that Dr. Seuss was sitting next to me at the desk working on it. It was his book. I wanted to use the sorts of rhymes he would use but also the sorts of rhymes and meters I would use." Following the lead set by Seuss, he took on one of the ideas of a school name "Diffendoofer" (a little play with the word "different"), developed a bushy-eyebrowed school principal and a far-dreaming school custodian, as well as a cadre of teachers who do such things like teach kids to smell and listen and tie knots.
The climax of the story comes when Prelutsky decides that the test would be an exam that the students will have to take or else be doomed to a school of control. It works and sounds just like something Seuss would have developed himself.
Smith, who says he has always been influenced by Seuss's art, had strong feelings about taking on the project. "I wanted to do it, but I wanted to be respectful. I didn't want it to be a posthumous book that merely imitated Seuss's style." The result is a wonderful blending of two artists. Smith's style is evident in the dynamic characters and the layout which completely stuffs each page with colorful, angular shapes. But also very visible are dozens of pieces of the Seuss books tucked in corners, subtlely transposed into the background but also laid out graphically. Represented here are images of the Cat, Horton, Green Eggs and Mulberry Street and many more.
The book contains a 16-page afterword by Schulman entitled, "How This Book Came to Be," which includes Seuss's scribblings and beginning copy. On top of the first page is a picture of Dr. Seuss himself who through his lifetime wrote 48 books (200 million copies in print) and with the help of a talented pair - who he had influenced over the years - continues to bring pleasure to us all.
What can be said but "Hooray!"