Cathy Goldsmith first saw the manuscript that became What Pet Should I Get? in October 2013. Goldsmith is the vice president and associate publishing director of the Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group, so from that date until the book’s release several days ago, she had plenty of other projects to work on besides What Pet Should I Get? Nonetheless, the discovery of a new Dr. Seuss book occupied her thoughts and time from its discovery to its release date. Theodor Geisel died in 1991, so Goldsmith, who became a senior art director at Random House Children’s Books in 1977 and has been at the house ever since, and her colleagues were left to decipher his intentions for the book from the notes he left on the manuscript. The publisher is producing a first printing of an astounding 1,000,000 copies of What Pet Should I Get? I talked to Goldsmith in July about discovering the book.
Where was the manuscript that became What Pet Should I Get?
In a storage closet. It was in a box, and the box was in the storage closet. The background to this is that about two years after Ted died, his widow, Audrey Geisel, decided to do some renovations on the house [in La Jolla, California], and she packed up a lot of material that was in the areas of the house she was renovating, put them into boxes, put them into the closet, and then promptly did not unpack this box when the renovations were over, so it’s been in the box probably since the early ’90s. One of the areas where she renovated was an area near where he worked in the house but not his creative area in the house. My guess is that the stuff was misplaced initially and so they never found it because they weren’t looking there for it.
Did you get a phone call?
Who did the phone call come from?
The call was placed by Claudia Prescott, who was Ted’s longtime assistant when he was alive and has remained an assistant with his wife Audrey Geisel.
What did she say?
She said they were cleaning out a closet and they found a box that had some materials in it that she thought Random House would be interested in seeing. She really wasn’t any more specific than that. I took that to mean that maybe there was something publishable there because why else would she call us? And did I want to come and look because the materials were slated to be turned over to the Mandeville Collection at the University of California, San Diego, which is where all of his archives are. And if I wanted to look at it, I needed to come fairly soon.
So you flew out there?
I actually ran first to my boss’s office here, Mallory Loehr, who’s our publisher, and said, “They found a box, and they want us to come and look! Do you want to go to California?” And she said, “Of course,” and I think we went there three or four business days later.
When you saw the papers, did you know they would be publishable?
When we first came in, all of the materials from the box were laid out on the dining room table. It’s a big table all in nice piles, folders around them. I’m not sure they were found that way, but that’s the way Claudia organized them. We looked through a number of folders. Some of the material was familiar to us. It was variations on some of the things he had already published, magazine pieces. He often took the magazine pieces and tried to rework them and make them into a book, so that didn’t surprise us that that kind of thing was there. And there were some other things in there. And [What Pet Should I Get?] was the most extraordinary thing that was in there.
It was clear to us it was his work. I’ve seen his work enough, I’ve seen his handwriting, I know what his artwork looks like, I know what the typewriter script looked like from the ’50s and ’60s (even though I didn’t work with him then), I’ve seen it in the archive, so the material looked right to me. Besides, it was in the house—somebody broke in and planted a forgery? What was extraordinary about it was that, although we didn’t know it at the time, we thought that we had a book there. We didn’t have enough time with the material to actually go through it enough to validate that everything we needed to make a book was there, but we thought that we had a book there. Literally, the Mandeville’s vans were in the driveway; they were packing boxes.
In the afterword, you write that there were various versions of the text placed on top of one another. Tell me about the process to decide which version made it into the final copy.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen Ted do that. There are reproductions of his working papers, for example The Cat in the Hat, where you can clearly see that the text is layered, that there’s something underneath it and a newer version on top of it, one taped over the other. In those days, he would type on something called onion skin and you could see what was beneath it and you could see that it’s a very old Remington typewriter typeface, so it wasn’t unusual to see versions of things and sometimes he would hand-write questions to himself on the text. We came down on thinking that probably the version on the top [was the one he meant to publish]. Not all of them were attached—some had fallen off, they were still in the package—so we did have to do some sorting; that’s what you do editorially. Normally, we wouldn’t do that with one of Ted’s works; he would’ve done it for us, in other words. He would deliver it finished. You wouldn’t see the versions of it, necessarily. But he wasn’t here, so we had to do it. We had to do our best job at it. I worked most intensely on this with Mallory Loehr and Alice Jonaitis, who’s our Dr. Seuss editor. So the three of us would talk about where we wanted it to go—if we chose this version versus that version, what were the implications.
What do you think is the likelihood that there are more Seuss manuscripts that could be found?
I’m thinking probably not too great because I don’t know where they would come from. We know the house has been emptied now. I’m not going to say never because I would’ve said never six years ago. I thought I would never see this day. Never.
Why do you think this book wasn’t published while he was alive?
He often worked on more than one thing at once. I think it was written right before One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, which was an extraordinarily busy time in his life creatively. In ’57, we published Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In ’58, you’ve got Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, so in that time frame, you’ve got two or three books a year, for three or four years. I actually think he wrote this book first and then he wrote One Fish, Two Fish, and I think they were very close together. I think he spun from one to the other. For whatever reason, he came down on the side of publishing One Fish, Two Fish and just sort of forgot about the other, which is the luxury you’ve got when you’ve got a lot of good stuff going on at the same time. I don’t think he said, “This isn’t worthy of publishing,” because if he had, he would’ve thrown it away. I just think he forgot about it.
You all feel confident that it was written between 1958 and 1962 because the imagery is similar to One Fish, Two Fish?
The kids in this book are absolutely the same kids that are in One Fish, Two Fish, with the exception of a little detail on the way the back of the girl’s sweater sits on her. The outfits are the same, they look the same. I knew it instantly when I saw it that they were the same kids. And there is a brief point in the book where the boy starts to think about made-up animals as opposed to real-life animals, and I actually think that’s the part that gave rise to One Fish, Two Fish. If you think about it, there’s whole bunches of crazy, made-up, unusual animals and kinds of pets in that book, and I think that’s the connecting link between the two books. That’s why I think he worked on What Pet Should I Get? and it led almost immediately to One Fish, Two Fish.
How do you feel now that this book is being published? You all have been working on it, off and on, since 2013.
I’m very excited. I didn’t even tell my mother about it. [The day I appeared on Good Morning America to announce the publication of What Pet Should I Get?], I called her at home in the morning and said, “Turn on the television! I’m going to be on TV!” My mother lives in Florida. She didn’t know what channel ABC is. I’m on my iPad trying to figure out what channel it would be where she lives. I told nobody about it. I thought to myself, “It’s not going to be me who leaks this thing.” So that part was the hardest, to keep it a secret. My mother would ask me, “What did you do at work today?” and I couldn’t tell her anything about it. That was kind of weird. But once it was out there, you could talk about being excited about it. Already, people say, “Can you get me a copy?” No, I cannot. Nobody gets a copy until pub date!
Geisel was a very meticulous writer and artist. What was it like working with him?
First of all, I never saw anything from him until he was done with it. As a rule, things didn’t change too much after he said he was finished with them. That’s because he’d been working on them for a long time. When he was done, he thought he was done. And he didn’t show you drafts. It’s not like now, where somebody submits something and you give them a contract but ask for a rewrite. He didn’t work that way. The other thing that was extraordinary about him was that he never took an advance on a book. It was his theory that when the book sold, Random House would make money and we would pay him. Of course, he had enough money to live on; he didn’t need the advance. But I thought that was interesting because today, everybody takes advance money. The estate did take an advance on this, though. He was meticulous in the sense that what he cared about was clarity. Remember, his original entry into the mainstream…first he wrote and illustrated what we call big [format] books, but when he got into the “reader” area, he became ever so much more conscious of being simple and bold and clear and telling stories in pictures and words that came together that would make kids think that they could read a book themselves. If you’ve ever read a book with a child who’s even too young to read, if it’s got text that has some rhythm and the rhyme to it, the kid learns it, and eventually, they tell it back to you and they say, “I’m reading this!” They’re not really reading it, but that whole joy is wonderful; that’s part of what he wanted kids to have. He wanted them to be able to think that books are powerful things and enjoyable things.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief.