Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Fifty Words

From today's The Writer's Almanac:

(Dr. Seuss) went on to publish a series of fairly successful books for older children and then, in 1955, an educational specialist asked him if he would write a book to help children learn how to read. Seuss was given a list of 300 words that most first graders know, and he had to write the book using only those words. Seuss wasn't sure he could do it, but as he looked over the list, two words jumped out at him: "cat" and "hat."

Seuss spent the next nine months writing what would become The Cat in the Hat (1957). That book is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. Parents and teachers immediately began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of its publication it was selling 12,000 copies a month.

A few years later, Seuss's publisher bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet with his book Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses exactly 50 different words, and only one of those words has more than one syllable: the word "anywhere." It became the forth best-selling children's hardcover book of all time.

Wow. I write about my kids a lot, and I write poems addressed to them, but I've not done a lot where I seriously consider children my audience and select my words accordingly. When I did my first workshop in a school last year, I had something of a hard time selecting some of my own work to include. I blamed it on language (I have a tendency toward the Latinate), but later thought I feared the brutal honesty of the third grade shooting my work down. I think I'll visit the Young People's Poetry Week poetry starters and see if I can compose one from their prompt words; that might help me figure it out.
I wonder if I could use the fifty words in Green Eggs and Ham and make something interesting out of them. I think I'll try that, too.

1 comment:

Pack Bringley said...

wow - I didn't know this about Mr. Seuss and I'm impressed. Now I know why the word "anywhere" is so damned delightful in that book: prosody!

Have you heard Jesse Jackson's brilliant rendition of "Green Eggs and Ham" on Saturday Night Live some years back? fabulous - the man understands pace and build. one of his best sermons.