Editor’s note: The following is the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday, April 22. During the sermon, the congregation was given a hand out with some questions with the intent of helping them better absorb the message. At certain points you will see that I pause to ask them to answer those questions.
Learning to read in 1953 was pretty rough going.
Yes, learning to read then would have been horribly, tragically, ferociously, boring.
The stories were plain
And the pictures were lame
And the books’ only characters were Dick and Jane.
All right. I’m good now. Sorry about that, but you have no idea how tempted I was to write this entire sermon in rhyme. Seriously.
Moving on. Yes, learning to read in 1953 would have in fact been about as much fun as trying to zip your jeans after our church’s Thanksgiving potluck. That’s because 1953 was before Theodor Geisel wrote his first beginner’s book.
That didn’t happen until at least a year later.
The story of that book starts in May 1954, when John Hersey wrote a Life Magazine article titled, “Why do students bog down on the First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading.”
In the article, Hersey was critical of the stories being used to teach reading to children. He said the tales were boring and lack imagination.
After the article ran, a man named William Ellsworth Spaulding, a publishing executive, had an idea. And so, he invited his friend Theodor to dinner. As the story goes, during the dinner Spaulding proposed that Ted write and illustrate a book for six- and seven-year olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading.
“Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!” Spaulding challenged.
Then, Spaulding supplied Theodor with a list of 348 words every six year old should know, and insisted that the book’s vocabulary be limited to 225 words.
Theodor took the challenge and wrote The Cat in the Hat, under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The book used 223 words that appeared on the list plus 13 words that did not.
It was described as a tour de force by some reviewers, because it retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Theodor’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.
As you probably know, Geisel went on to write many other children’s books, both in his new simplified-vocabulary manner (sold as Beginner Books) and in his older, more elaborate style. The Beginner Books never came easy for Geisel though and, like the Cat in the Hat, they all reportedly took him months to complete.
However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his work changed the world. Or at least the world of first-grade classrooms across America. Because he cared a whole awful lot, he created works that taught generations of children to read about foxes in boxes, red fish, blue fish, and green eggs and ham.
How many of you remember reading a Dr. Seuss book when you were younger? OK, real quick, I want you to turn to the person next to you and tell them what your favorite Dr. Seuss book is and why.
Personally, I remember reading Green Eggs and Ham over and over and over and over and over and over in first grade. I was pro at that book.
Not on a train! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! Sam! Let me be!
I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I will not eat them with a mouse
I will not eat them in a house.
I will not eat them here or there.
I will not eat them anywhere.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am!
He’s got quite a list of titles, doesn’t he? In fact, he actually wrote 46 children’s books during his lifetime.
For me today, it was his story about Truffula Trees, a Once-ler and a Lorax that inspired this message.
In the book The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells the story of a Once-ler who discovers he can make a lot of money selling Thneeds made from Truffula Trees. And so, the Once-ler starts cutting down all the Truffula Trees for profit. But as he’s doing this, The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, keeps trying to warn to him to stop because it’s causing so much damage.
Sadly, the Once-ler does not listen to the Lorax, and eventually he and his family cut down every single Truffula Tree. The Lorax leaves and the forest is left desolate.
As the Once-ler explains:
“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.”
It wouldn’t be a Dr. Seuss story though if it ended on such a gloomy note. And of course, it doesn’t. (more…)