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A Prescription from Dr. Seuss on Writing Timeless Books for Kids

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/12/2011

Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying the popularity of Dr. Seuss books worldwide. His first book was published in 1937, yet kids today still can't get enough of them. What is the secret to this success? How can we create such a timeless classic to keep kids enthralled decades from now?

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    They Don't Make Them Like Seuss Anymore

    It takes a lot of work (and a little luck) to get any book published in today's market, and the children's book market is becoming ever more fierce. Theredrseuss  is good news for the author and illustrator of picture books though. Editors are wishing to build up this area of their domain, and indeed reports are showing that the market is becoming more skewed towards younger children as we find increasingly inventive ways of teaching them to read. So if you are a Dr. Seuss wannabe, you can take some positivity from this outlook.

    There is a downside however, in that Seuss had a huge amount of control over the publication of his books that is not afforded to new writers in today's market. So how can you gain the competitive advantage? Become an author/illustrator like Seuss and you'd be on the right track.

    There are simply no hugely successful writers of children's books around now that also take on the illustrations of their books. If you know better then let me know, but I can't find any that equal Seuss. You have created your characters, you can see them in your mind, so who better to illustrate? Be as passionate about illustrating as you are at writing, and don't ignore the other stuff either... no one said this was going to be easy.

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    Always Judge a Book By Its Cover

    If you have never judged a book by its cover then I'd be very surprised! Right from the off, Dr. Seuss puts himself at an advantage by having such striking, but actually pretty simple-looking covers to his books. As beautiful as some children's books can be, it's unlikely they are going to be the first ones to grab your attention.

    A plain background, a single striking figure from your story, and a unique font are all Seuss relies on to catch your attention. There are sometimes simple frames included on the front cover, but not always, and even then the character is allowed to "walk" across the edges. In almost all examples too, the image chosen will feature a complementary color to the main background color, for maximum impact. It's not always the direct counterpart on the color wheel that is chosen -- you don't want to be garish or give your readers a headache -- but only a notch or two away.

    So in the Cat in the Hat, red rather than orange has been chosen to complement the blue background. And in Mr. Brown Can Moo you have orange with a touch of red against the green backdrop. Although purple and yellow are complementary colors for one another, this example to the right has used more muted pastel tones rather than more intense hues.

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    Unique and Timeless Design

    This one is trickier to define, but an important skill to hone. Take a look at your finished work. Even if it looks great, will it still look great in ten years time, or will it look a tad dated? Of course, we can't predict trends that far off, but if you have a very definite modern feel to your page it's never going to be a timeless classic.

    Dr. Seuss began creating his books in the 1930s, and yet they are still popular. Why? Well, at the time, he was thought of as a bit eccentric, but he did what he believed in, what made him laugh, and yes maybe there was a good degree of eccentricity in there too. Do what you feel is right, no matter what everyone else is doing. It's all too easy to try and replicate what is successful now -- because of course you want to be successful now -- but books that are successful for years on end are the ones that are that little bit different in the first place.

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    Gotta Love That Font

    A choice of font is not always going to be a consideration for you, but it is a hugely underestimated tool. The Dr. Seuss font is instantly recognizable no matter what the choice of text may be. It is used not only on the cover of his books, but is used on the pages inside too.

    Most of the text you will read is a pretty nondescript serif font that could be used for any purpose, and is commonly seen in pretty much any book you'll pick up off the shelf, whether a children's book or an adult's book. This is important for readability, but it's never going to make your page stand out.

    What Seuss cleverly does is to incorporate "his font" onto the pages too, in terms of sounds. It lends a more stylized look, and makes it obvious to young readers which parts are the sounds and which parts are the story. Which leads us onto....

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    Text Placement

    Whether you are self-publishing a children's book or you have been given some creative say in the overall finished look of your book, think about the placement of your text carefully. Just as supermarkets are designed in such a way as to get us to spend more, there are tricks to be learned from Dr. Seuss on how the text you write can have the best impact on the page.

    Think about your market, kids love pictures and it will be this that first grabs their attention, so make sure your text isn't distant from these illustrations. You can even do as Seuss does and make parts of your illustrations white, that really wouldn't be in reality, to use as the backdrop to your text. Seuss speak is always displayed on a plain background.

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    Keep It Flowing - Making a Book "Readable"

    Even if your sentences are long, another trick Dr. Seuss uses is wide margins, so an apparently long sentence is split up into three or four lines to keep the young reader... well... reading!

    So younger readers don't feel overwhelmed when turning the page, Seuss books are presented with only a small number of words on a page. So many times I've heard "How many pages left?" "Oh, I won't know all those words!" and "There's lot of words!" when reading with little ones, so keeping them turning the page without feeling fed-up is a top skill to achieve.

    Do not forget the power of rhyming words either; they make it fun and readable, so even parents like reading the books too. Give some consideration to parents reading to tired children (but not too much) -- if they read it with enthusiasm and find it a nice skippy, flowing piece of writing then the child is likely to feel more positively towards the book too.

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    Dr Seuss books have been selling well for almost 80 years and are popular the world over. So what did the Doctor do that makes his books so successful and still popular today? We'll take a look at 10 things you can do to make your book a timeless classic too. We cover simple processes like the choice and placement of font, as well as more complex matters like the language you use for children, make your characters stand-out and be unique, how you can connect with your reader, as well as make books like this educational without appearing to be so. If you get parents and teachers on your side with an educational angle that has to improve your chances of success.
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    Use a Simple Color Palette

    Much like his approach with book covers, the pages and characters in Seuss books use a simplified approach. There is plenty of detail in the fur of the cat, or the formation of the snow so the images are more recognizable and appealing, but not a lot of color is used in its deployment.

    In fact if you were to take the color out of the pages of Dr. Seuss books they wouldn't be as engaging certainly, but they'd still be appealing -- there is a lot of shading and form created just with pencil strokes. Throughout the Cat in the Hat and its sequel, the only colors of note that are used (apart from black and white), are red, blue, and a touch of pink, and the book is certainly none the worse for it. It is a defining characteristic and in fact makes it stand out because of it.

    Don't be afraid to use good-old fashioned pencil drawings and shading along with a bit of color to add visual interest, but you don't have to color in every detail.

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    Connect With Your Reader

    This one might take a bit of research if you aren't familiar with the age-group you are writing for, but books for kids always work best when children feel some kind of attachment or recognition of what is happening. Believe it or not, this isn't something just reserved for older readers.

    Consider the programs young children like to watch: Handy Manny, Peppa Pig, Special Agent Oso and Charlie and Lola (to scrape just the surface) all contain an element of things that are important to kids in every episode. Whether it's a trip to the dentist, how to put their clothes on, not feeling like they are good at something, or not being able to sleep at night. Seuss does this, but in a less obvious way than these cartoons.

    Green Eggs and Ham is loosely based on not wanting to eat a certain food that a child really doesn't want to. The Grinch is touching on children's fears of what would happen if Christmas got stolen or taken away -- would they really not get any presents?

    The main lesson here is to connect with your young readers, but not in an obvious "here is the moral of this story" way.

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    Individual and Memorable Characters

    There's not a chance that once you've met one of Dr. Seuss' characters you are ever going to forget them! Of course they are illustrated in a unique way, but there's more to it than that. They aren't even larger than life characters, they are more "larger than beyond life characters."

    The beauty of illustrations is that they don't have to be anatomically correct; you don't have to worry about the legs being unfeasibly thin for a large body -- in fact exaggerated features work hugely well. The characters Seuss created aren't in the least bit recognizable to us from real life, although they do still have two eyes, two feet etc., but other than that, you can do what you want.

    Of course a cat can talk like a man and wear a hat and bow tie -- try envisioning the cat in the hat with a totally different hat and it doesn't work. Don't ignore the small details, a stripy hat and a scruffy bow tie might be all you need to make your character stand out.

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    What a Lot of Nonsense

    Mr. Brown is smart, as smart as they come! He can do a hippopotamus chewing gum! Complete gibberish and nonsense, but it's fun, memorable and definitely makes kids smile if not laugh out loud. Yes, you need to connect with your reader, but that doesn't mean you have to be serious.

    Kids can get serious from doing math at school, you want to make their reading experience an enjoyable one. So let your creativity go and don't worry if it doesn't make sense, or couldn't happen in "real life." This is a book, anything can happen! The best thing about nonsense? It's absolutely 100% timeless as it has no frame of reference to begin with.

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    Educational, Really?

    Given the last topic discussed, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dr. Seuss books are a lot of old nonsense and are the least educational books for children you can buy. WRONG! Dr. Seuss books are actually big favorites with teachers and parents alike, for helping to teach kids their sight words. In fact, a massive 87% of Green Eggs and Ham consists of Dolch sight words, and many of Seuss' other books are around the 70-80% mark too.

    This is a huge lesson to learn, and one certainly worth bearing in mind. You don't want to patronize your readers (even young kids have that toddler death stare if you do that), but you don't want your text to include too many "big" words that makes them feel like they never want to read it themselves. Make sure that most of it could be understood by your readers, even if they aren't confident enough to read it all alone. Don't be restricted by this either (remember the patronizing tone we are trying to avoid), but try and remember to make more than half of it readable to your audience.

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    ...Continued Success...

    Keeping Dr. Seuss books alive and current, rather than books that languish on dusty library shelves, is also a future lesson to keep in mind. The estate of Dr. Seuss does this brilliantly with a website as engaging as the books, and interactive iPad books that can help young readers on words when they get stuck, or even read the book to them.

    How would your character's look when animated, or sound when they are given a voice? Dr. Seuss characters are almost made for the digital age, even though they were created 80 years ago.

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    Don't Be Lazy

    As you can see, Seuss pretty much thought about everything. These little, apparently simple books had a lot of thought, passion and talent poured into them. They didn't come about by some mistake; Seuss took an all-encompassing approach to the entire operation. What writers do that nowadays? NONE!

    Think back to books you enjoyed when you were a youngster, and the books your children enjoy now. I'm reminded of the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves, and Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar among others. What do these have in common with Dr Seuss? They are still popular now even though they were created many decades ago. And... oh yes... they were illustrated by the author too. I am certain there are no author/illustrators doing that now.

    Please let me know if you disagree or have any new author/illustrators to add to my list!

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