Step aside, “Go Set a Watchman”. As exciting as it may be that Harper Lee has published her second novel in 55 years, it’s surely more exciting that another of America’s literary titans has a new book out 24 years after his death. The book is “What Pet Should I Get?” by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. The genius behind “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, Geisel wrote and illustrated it some time between 1958 and 1962 – just after Lee wrote “Go Set a Watchman”, incidentally. But rather than sending the manuscript to his publishers, he tucked it in a box, where it was discovered in 2013 by his widow, Audrey. She passed the yellowing black-and-white drawings and type-written text labels on to Cathy Goldsmith, who was Geisel’s art director at Random House. And Goldsmith’s team then burnished the pages into a glossy, full-colour hardback. It hasn’t been published in Britain yet, but in America “What Pet Should I Get?” sold 200,000 copies in its first week on the shelves, as people grabbed the opportunity to own a Dr Seuss first edition for $17.99. Getting my hands on an American copy felt like taking a wrong turn in an Egyptian pyramid and finding a roomful of undiscovered treasure.
What’s surreal about the book is that it’s almost indistinguishable from the ones published in Geisel’s lifetime. At first glance, you don’t spot any rough edges. The no-nonsense font, the jaunty layouts and the blocks of bold colour are all so characteristically Seussian that you’d never know that Geisel hadn’t overseen them himself. Indeed, the book looks so perfect that it’s vaguely unsettling, like a lo-fi John Lennon demo which the surviving Beatles have developed into a plush pop anthem, or a ruined medieval castle which has had its turrets rebuilt by the Victorians. Its very flawlessness makes it feel as if a liberty has been taken. And as polished as it appears, you can see why Geisel felt that it wasn’t ready to be published.
“What Pet Should I Get?” features a pert-nosed brother and sister – identical to the children in “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” – who can’t decide whether to buy a dog, a cat or one of the other smiling inhabitants of a spacious pet shop. Geisel’s wonderful wordplay is present and correct, whether he is putting his own twist on a familiar phrase (“But how could I make up/that mind in my head?”) or tossing rhymes in the air like a juggler (“A fast kind of thing/who would fly round my head/in a ring on a string”). And the pictures are a joy: zany, energetic, slightly disturbing in their anarchy, but always palliated by their floppy softness. Everything in the world of Dr Seuss looks as if it has been inflated, and then some of the air has seeped out.
But some of the air seems to have seeped out of the narrative, too. “What Pet Should I Get?” doesn’t spiral upwards, as the best Dr Seuss tales do, but drifts from side to side. I suspect that Geisel wasn’t satisfied by the placeholder vocabulary or the uneven scansion, either. When I was reading it, I kept tripping and stumbling when I put my weight on the wrong syllable, whereas you can skip across the springy terrain of “Green Eggs and Ham” without ever losing your footing.
Still, the whole enterprise is vindicated by one double-page spread (even if the same spread is reprinted later in the story, which seems like cheating). It depicts four of Geisel’s trademark furry, loose-limbed creatures gambolling from left to right, each of them carrying a banner. Together they spell out the block-capital message: MAKE UP YOUR MIND (above). If that cheerily peremptory image were made into a poster, many of us would stick it on the walls behind our desks, me included.
As for the target audience, the six-year-old critic in my house gave “What Pet Should I Get?” the following review: “It’s not rubbish, but it’s not great. Dr Seuss can do better.” Harsh but fair. Her two-year-old sister was more cutting. “We want a pet,” I recited. “We want a pet./What kind of pet/Should we get?”
“Don’t want a pet,” she countered. And – to quote the book’s final words – that was that.
What Pet Should I Get? is out now in America, published by Random House