The story behind the discovery of the Theodor Geisel manuscript that would become What Pet Should I Get? has already taken its place within publishing lore (see PW’s previous coverage), but at Random House headquarters on September 10, the team behind the publication of the new Seuss book spoke first-hand about the process, while also sharing anecdotes and little-known facts about Geisel’s life and career. The speakers were Cathy Goldsmith, v-p and associate publisher at Random House Children’s Books, who worked with Geisel on his last six books; v-p and publisher Mallory Loehr; and senior editor Alice Jonaitis. The event was sponsored by the Book Industry Guild of New York.
As Jonaitis, Loehr, and Goldsmith got down to the nitty-gritty of transforming Geisel’s rediscovered manuscript into a publishable book, Goldsmith struggled with decisions relating to the artwork and layout, specifically when it came to color. As the animals in the manuscript that Geisel tentatively titled “The Pet Shop” are “real animals – not blue, yellow, and red” (as they are in One Fish), Goldsmith determined that the comparatively subtle storyline needed a more subdued color treatment “it would be overwhelmed in full color,” she believed.
In addition to decisions about the images, there were a few additional content-related quandaries. For example, Jonaitis was aware that the fact that the children in the manuscript go to a pet store to acquire a pet, rather than to a shelter, could be problematic for today’s audience: “This was a concern from the get-go,” she said. The team didn’t modify this aspect, but they did elect to include a note at the end of the book explaining that Seuss’s story is of its time, when it was more customary to purchase a pet from a store. And then there was the title. The panelists said they agreed that “The Pet Shop” was not what Geisel would have ultimately used; after pondering the decision, they arrived at what they felt was a catchy name that better captured the essence of the story.
Loehr noted that, as What Pet Should I Get? was scheduled for release just two weeks after Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman – a book that raised some controversy about whether all works of a renowned author are meant for publication – they were wary of public reception. They fully anticipated the very question asked by an audience member about the reasons why Geisel left this particular manuscript in a box rather than showing it to the world. Loehr believes that, as the “Pet Shop’” manuscript featured the same boy and girl from Red Fish, Blue Fish, it is a part of the “same journey.” In the process of working on the book, he began to take the work in a slightly different direction. She speculates that he “got so excited about imaginary animals that he went straight to Red Fish,” but it doesn’t mean that the work did not hold merit for him. She added that it was crucial for them to “keep it true to Seuss.”
Theodor Geisel: A Man of Many Hats (Literally)
Showing slides from Geisel’s childhood and adult life, Jonaitis gave an overview of his early career, which – as with any writer – had its share of missteps. His work was rejected by 27 houses, before he had a fortuitous encounter on Madison Avenue with an old friend – Mike McClintock, who had just taken on the role of juvenile editor at Vanguard. Jonaitis explained that Seuss was intending to burn the manuscript for what would become And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, but McClintock took him back to the Vanguard office, and Vanguard president James Henle agreed to publish it in 1937.
He published his first book with Random House, The King’s Stilts, in 1939. Back then, Geisel was not exclusively focused on writing and illustrating children’s books. In fact, Random published one of his few books for adults, the rather bawdy The Seven Lady Godivas, in 1939, which is the story of seven Godiva sisters who all tromp around in the nude. “It was a total failure,” Jonaitis said. Despite this, the book was later reissued in 1987. “It was again a failure,” she said with a laugh.
Geisel’s love of animals was not only apparent in his work but in his personal life, said Jonaitis, while showing a series of slides in which Geisel appears with his pets. He particularly adored dogs and had a great many throughout his years, with whom he would share his stories. His first dog, however, was a stuffed animal that he kept his entire life, giving it to his stepdaughter on the verge of his death and urging her to take good care of it.
Goldsmith reflected on her first experiences with Geisel, meeting him when she was 28 years old in her early days at Random. She recalls being uncertain of what she should call him. “Nobody called him Mr. Geisel,” she said. But she felt uncomfortable calling him so informally by his first name, until he told her: “You need to start calling me Ted and I will call you Cathy. Because if you don’t, I’ll call you Little You.” Geisel used to say that on his good days, he was the Cat in the Hat and on his bad days, the Grinch – incidentally, his license plate spelled out the latter.
Goldsmith shared that working directly with Geisel was purely chance and luck: “I have no idea how I was assigned to him,” she said. Over the years, they established a close working relationship and she grew familiar with his many unique characteristics. For example: he collected bow ties and hats, and had a large appetite. Whenever he and his wife, Audrey, came to New York (that always meant that Geisel had a new book), they had a deal: Audrey could do as much shopping as she wanted and Ted could eat as much and whatever he wanted – his meal of choice often being an omelette with a side of vodka.
To say that Geisel had a sense of humor would seem obvious from his work, but his playful, gentle nature was evident in many of his gestures and interactions, Goldsmith said. He once sent her what appeared to be a jewelry box. Opening the box she discovered that it wasn’t a ring or bracelet, but a lime from his tree. There was a note with the lime, which explained that he was giving her “a third of the annual yield” (there had been three so far that year). In retrospect, said Goldsmith, “I should have had it bronzed.... But instead I had it in a gin and tonic.”