After Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, died in 1991, his widow, Audrey Geisel, decided to renovate their hilltop house in La Jolla, California. She and an assistant cleared out his office, donating most of his valuable illustrations and early drafts to the University of California, San Diego, and stashing some doodles and abandoned sketches in a box.
It wasn’t until October 2013, when they decided to have the rest of his notes and sketches appraised, that they closely examined the contents of that box. They found a set of brightly colored alphabet flash cards, some rough sketches titled “The Horse Museum,” and a manila folder marked “Noble Failures,” with whimsical drawings that he had been unable to find a place for in his stories.
But alongside the orphaned sketches was a more complete project labeled “The Pet Shop,” 16 black-and-white illustrations, with text that he had typed on paper and taped to the drawings. The pages were stained and yellowed, but the story was all there, in Dr. Seuss’ unmistakable rollicking rhymes.
“We didn’t know that we had such a treasure,” said the assistant, Claudia Prescott, who started working for Theodor Geisel in 1972 and now helps Audrey Geisel, 93, run Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
Through painstaking work and a meticulous, almost forensic reconstruction of Theodor Geisel’s creative process, those abandoned pages have yielded an unexpected new Dr. Seuss book, now called “What Pet Should I Get?” When Random House publishes it Tuesday, with a first printing of 1 million copies, it will add a surprising coda to Dr. Seuss’ sizable canon.
Geisel wrote and illustrated 44 children’s books in his lifetime, including classics like “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham,” which helped generations of children learn to read. His enduring popularity among young readers is virtually unmatched. His books have sold more than 650 million copies globally, and sales continue to rise each year.
The last original Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,” was released in 1990, and no one at Random House expected an unpublished book to appear 24 years after Geisel’s death. The only person still at the company who had worked directly with him was Cathy Goldsmith, the designer and art director on his last six books. Within a week of learning of the recovered manuscript, she was on a flight to San Diego.
“She’s our lasting link to Dr. Seuss,” said Susan Brandt, president of licensing and marketing for Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
Goldsmith, now the vice president and associate publishing director for Random House/Golden Books Young Readers, was nervous about turning the manuscript into a book. No one knew why Geisel had set it aside, or what he planned to do with it.
“There’s a lot at stake here, for us and for him, and I really didn’t want to get this wrong,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith works in a quiet, sunny corner office in New York, surrounded by Seussenalia. A stuffed Lorax sits in the window, and a framed photo of Geisel on his 80th birthday hangs above her desk. In a filing cabinet, in what she calls the “magic drawer,” she keeps fragile early editions of books like “Hop on Pop” and “If I Ran the Circus.”
Goldsmith started working on Dr. Seuss books in 1978. She remembers her first encounter with Geisel, a tall, imposing figure with a wicked sense of humor.
“I had no idea what to call him when I first met him,” Goldsmith said. “No one else called him Dr. Seuss.”
He finally noticed that she was awkwardly avoiding using his name, and told her to call him Ted.
She worked with him for the next 11 years. Toward the end of his life, when he was too ill to finish coloring in the final pages of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,” he called Goldsmith. She flew out and stayed at his home for several days, coloring under his direction.
By the time Goldsmith met him, Dr. Seuss was already a publishing legend. But his instantly recognizable artistic and literary persona - the tongue-twisting, anarchic rhymes and hallucinatory drawings - had evolved over many decades, as Geisel pursued a career in advertising, then made a name as a political cartoonist.
Though he published his first children’s book to acclaim in 1937, it wasn’t until 20 years later, with “The Cat in the Hat,” that Geisel gained blockbuster status, and Dr. Seuss became a beloved and influential brand. The next few years were prolific. Geisel wrote “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” “Yertle the Turtle,” “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” and “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” in quick succession.
It was then, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, that Goldsmith and the Seuss archivists believe that he wrote the story about the pet shop. The children in the book are virtually identical to the boy and the girl in “One Fish Two Fish.” He was juggling multiple projects, and may have set it aside for later. Or it may have been the jumping-off point for “One Fish Two Fish.”
“He often worked on something and tucked it away to return to later,” Geisel said through a Random House spokeswoman. “I imagine he was doing just that, and then discovered new stories to tell that took his attention away from it.”
Some Seuss scholars say Geisel may have felt ambivalent about the pet shop book. He didn’t try to publish it, but he didn’t throw it away, either.
A notorious perfectionist and tinkerer, Geisel took work to Random House only when it was complete. The pet shop manuscript, which tells the story of a brother and sister who visit a pet store and feel overwhelmed by the choices, was several steps shy of finished.
He hadn’t shaded in the color with colored pencils, as he normally did. He typically typed up the words for each page, then cut them out in small squares and taped them to the drawings. When he revised the text, he taped new versions over the old ones. But the squares of paper had come loose, so it was unclear what the final text should be in the recovered manuscript. Some images had five different possible rhyme schemes.
The theme of “What Pet Should I Get?” is making choices, and like the boy and the girl in the story, who waver over getting a cat, a dog, a bird or a fish, Goldsmith faced a maze of decisions.
She started by piecing together the text. Geisel usually put his storyboards up on the wall when he was matching the words to the images. So when it was unclear which version of the text he had intended to use, Goldsmith and two colleagues taped the pages to the wall of a conference room and read the different versions aloud to see which phrases flowed best.
When the text was done, Goldsmith worked on the color scheme. Geisel was very particular about color (he once chided Goldsmith for choosing plain white for the snow on a Grinch puzzle she designed, and suggested she use pale green instead). She studied the books he had published around the same period, when he favored bold primary colors, and picked out similar yellows and blues for the backgrounds. She printed scans of the black-and-white drawings and colored them in with pencils, trying four or five versions.
Then she followed his method of picking hues from a chart from the printing press and marking up each page like a paint-by-numbers project, writing the number of a given shade in the place it should go.
“I figured if it worked for him, it would work for me,” she said.
Goldsmith took very few liberties. Once she went out on a limb, fashioning a transition at a point where reality gives way to fantasy, as the boy begins imagining fantastical creatures. She agonized over what to do. Finally, the solution popped into her head, in the form of a rhyme. Goldsmith says she felt as if it had come in a dream.
“I woke up in the morning and I had the answer,” she said.
The story ends on an uncertain note as the boy and the girl leave the store with a basket. A pair of eyes peer out, but the animal remains hidden. Goldsmith declined to guess what pet they had bought, venturing only, “It’s probably not a fish.”