Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2016 Contenders: What Pet Should I Get?, by Dr. Seuss

I find posthumously published works fascinating, and one of the interesting things about them is the varied states in which the original manuscripts had been left. At one end are books such as The Dark Frigate (the 1924 Newbery winner), where Charles Hawes had actually already delivered the final manuscript to his publisher before dying. At the other end would be something like Franz Kafka's Amerika, which has such an enormous unwritten hole in the middle that it's not even clear how the author intended to get the narrative to its conclusion.

What Pet Should I Get?, which finally reached publication almost two and a half decades after the death of its author, occupies a place somewhere in between those extremes. The manuscript, which was rediscovered a couple of years ago, contained 16 uncolored illustrations. The text was essentially complete, but Seuss's working method was to type the words, cut them up, and then affix them to the illustrations with tape, taping over the old words with new ones if he chose to make alterations. However, the tape had come loose, making it difficult to ascertain exactly which version of the text had been intended. (The New York Times article I linked to there is a fascinating read if you want more detail on how the book came to be.)

The reconstruction was supervised by Cathy Goldsmith, the last person left at Random House who had actually worked with Seuss, having done the design and art direction for his last handful of titles. This reconstituted version arrived on bookstore (and library!) shelves in July, providing a surprise coda to Seuss's career.

Maybe the first thing to take note of is that this isn't a late-period work that Seuss died before finishing up. Rather, it dates from sometime during his middle period, the era of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), Happy Birthday to You! (1959), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). The design of the (unnamed) protagonists is almost identical to those of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), and one possible theory is that What Pet Should I Get? is some sort of embryonic version of or starting point for One Fish. (There are no surviving notes about what Seuss was trying to accomplish in this book -- or why he shelved it -- and so everything at this point is conjecture.)

I was excited to see What Pet Should I Get? come out, because I love Seuss's work so much, and it looms large in my formative reading experiences. However, I think that, once the publicity around the book dies down, we'll see it as an interesting footnote to his career, but no more. Seuss's loping, tongue-twisting meter is relatively easy to parody, but the final texts of his books were the result of near-inhuman levels of revision -- one reason that, although his style is often imitated, it's essentially never equaled. The rhymes and rhythms of What Pet Should I Get? felt noticeably rougher than those of the classic titles he produced during the late '50s and early '60s, and I'm not convinced he would have let the text stand as it is if he had chosen to prepare it for publication.

The ending of the book [spoiler alert!] is also somewhat odd. After running through a long list of possible pets, the siblings who serve as our protagonists make their selection -- but they don't tell us what pet they've chosen, and the final illustration simply shows the eyes of an unidentifiable shape peeking out of the basket that the children are taking home. Seuss wasn't above ending his books on a rhetorical question ("What would you do, if your mother asked you?" from The Cat in the Hat), or even a cliffhanger (the scene of the generals perched on the wall, deciding whether or not to drop their bombs on the last page of The Butter Battle Book, is about as tense of an ending as you'll see), but this ending just felt out of place to me. What Pet Should I Get? is a book written at a level more like that in Seuss's easy readers than that of his longer, more challenging works, and although you could make an argument that the ending is set up that way to allow kids to use their imaginations to finish the story, it still felt to me like running into a wall on the last page.

Although Dr. Seuss is one of the most important figures in the history of American children's literature, he didn't actually do as well in the ALSC awards as I might have thought -- three Caldecott Honors (for McElligot's Pool in 1948, Bartholomew and the Oobleck in 1950, and If I Ran the Zoo in 1951), but zero Caldecott wins, and zero mentions on the Newbery rolls. I'd love to see him win the Geisel award for this one, just for the neatness of having someone win an established award that's already named after them, but I don't think it's actually a good enough book for that to happen. The Newbery is out of the question, and given that the art had to be colorized by later editors, I doubt the Caldecott committee will go for it either. What Pet Should I Get? is a fascinating historical curiosity, but no more than that.

Published in July by Random House


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