Dr. Seuss Hated Hitler (and Other Children’s Authors Side Projects)

Of course Dr. Seuss hated Hitler, you shout at the computer screen! Everyone does! Sure. Still, I usually don’t turn to the children’s section or the comic page for my daily dose of politics. But you would be surprised what famous illustrators and cartoonists have done apart from their famous work.

Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)

After graduating from Dartmouth College, Theodor Geisel moved to London, where he intended on pursuing a PhD in English at Oxford. However, while there he met his future wife, Helen Palmer, who, after seeing his notebooks full of fantastic doodles, suggested it might make sense to pursue a career as an artist. He took her advice, dropped out of Oxford, and began making money illustrating advertisements.

Sure, seems like normal work for an aspiring cartoonist, but the next part of his career takes an unlikely turn.

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“Since when did we swap our ego for an ostrich?”
image credit: UC San Diego

When Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan began to pursue militarism, Geisel became sharply critical of America’s stanch isolationism. He began drawing cartoons for the leftist magazine PMThe one pictured on the right was his third published in the magazine and compares America to an ostrich with its head stuck in the ground.

We would all applaud this effort. However, as with many Americans at the time, Geisel had a rather racist view of the Japanese, including, in most cases, loyal Japanese Americans.

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“Don’t let them carve THOSE faces on our mountains”
image credit: UC San Diego

Another wartime project that Geisel took on: making movies. He was appointed the commander of Animation Department for the Army’s movie unit, whose purpose was to produce mainstream propaganda for Americans. Actors such as Clark Gable, James Stewart, and Ronald Reagan performed in films, and he also worked with directors such as John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven).

In his tenure with the movie department, Geisel wrote one film entitled Your Job in Germany, which became Design for Death, winner of the 1948 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Geisel maintained he wrote most of the film, but failed to be honored. However, he did succeed in the film arena by scoring an Oscar nod in 1950 with Gerald McBoing-Boing, which won for Best Animated Short.

After the successes of Horton Hears a Who (1955) and The Cat in the Hat (1957), Geisel focused on writing children’s books full-time, and took on the name “Dr. Seuss” as a full time pen name.

For more Dr. Seuss WWII cartoons, check out the UC San Diego collection.

Shel Silverstein

He wrote classics like The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings. He won a Grammy for writing “A Boy Named Sue“, as performed by Johnny Cash. He was nominated for an Oscar for the song “I’m Checking Out,” which was featured in Postcards from the Edge.

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Collection of Silverstein’s travel writings
image credit: wikimedia

But in 1957, at the age of 27, Silverstein scored a fantastic new job. He was hired by Playboy to travel the world and illustrate the locales he visited. These included a New Jersey nudist colony and the Chicago White Sox training camp. He continued writing for Playboy into the mid 1970s, with his most popular feature being Uncle Shelby’s ABZs. If you’re not familiar with these poems, they have a similar rhyme scheme to his popular poetry found in his children’s books, but with a slightly dark twist.

The premise of his Playboy poems is that Uncle Shelby is writing to his nephew. Now, as any good uncle does, he gives his unnamed nephew some advice. Here’s an example of a poem, from his book Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book:

Z is for zoo

Let’s go to the zoo

See all the animals!

The animals are locked inside the cages.

Poor animals!

Who will let them out???

See the elephant in the zoo. Give the nice elephant some peanut shells with pepper inside. That will be a good joke on him. Ha. Ha. Ha Ha. The elephant is mad but don’t worry — By tomorrow the elephant will have forgotten all about it.

Roald Dahl

The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has an origin story that sounds like something out of James Bond. Actually, his pre-writing life sounded a lot like James Bond himself.

Dahl worked for the Shell Petroleum Company and was stationed Dar-es-Salaam. He lived a cushy life with servants and expeditions in the bush. He joined the Royal Airforce after the outbreak of World War I and was initially assigned to fly Gladiators, the last active biplane fighters. Being severely outdated machinery, Dahl crashed in the desert in Egypt. He fractured his skull and was left with temporary blindness alone in the desert.

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Dahl in pilot gear
image credit: The Telegraph

Was Dahl deterred by his crash? Never! He recovered from his injuries and started flying far more sophisticated aircraft. Not only that, he became an ace pilot, shooting down numerous enemy planes during dogfights. After blacking out during flights, Dahl was invalided and returned home to England. However, his war career wasn’t done. Dahl was sent to Washington, D.C. where his task was to socialize and flirt and to send information to MI6.

While in D.C., novelist C. S. Forester heard of Dahl and wanted to interview him for the Saturday Evening Post. They got lunch together, with Forester intending on hearing the story of Dahl crashing in Egypt and using it for an article. However, Dahl had a hard time vocalizing his story so he told Forester he would type it up and his notes could be used for the story. However, when Forester recieved the notes from Dahl, he realized that the story was better than anything he could have written and published it as is.

Thus, the Shell oil man turned ace fighter pilot turned spy became a writer. And the chocolate factory was born.