There are moments of uproarious fun in Dr. Seuss' never-before-published picture book, "What Pet Should I Get?"
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known for his more fantastical creatures — the Grinch, Things One and Two — proves himself just as capable of conjuring the ordinary house cat's supreme self-satisfaction and the archetypal good dog's sincere desire to be of service. He also throws in the inspired thing on a string, a flying fur ball that fairly zips off the page.
That's the good news. The bad news is that "What Pet Should I Get?" is pretty much what you'd expect from a 50-year-old manuscript that Geisel himself never published, and that languished for two decades after his death in 1991, until it was "rediscovered" in 2013 by Geisel's wife, Audrey, and his former secretary, Claudia Prescott. This is an interesting draft, rather than a finished book, with all the bumps and blips and minor embarrassments that draft status implies.
I cringed a little when the great man rhymed pay and Kay on page 2, when plot and character had not yet hemmed him in and he had a world of words at his disposal. I found little magic in the lackluster creatures in the "Make up Your Mind" spreads; they felt like padding or place-holders.
This is Geisel at his second, third or maybe fourth best, which can still be quite good. There's real tension as a little boy and girl, reminiscent of the duo in "One fish two fish red fish blue fish," enter a pet store with a strict order from Dad: Come home with one and only one pet. How do you choose between a dog and a cat? A puppy and a kitten? A bunny and a bird? Just when the boy seems to be making progress, his sister takes off in the direction of the aquarium, crying "FISH!/ FISH!/ FISH!/ FISH!/ It may be a fish/ is the pet that we wish!"
This being a Seuss book, the pets become gratifyingly more imaginative as the tale continues, and the cast of creatures is varied and engaging.
I'm not sure that kids will care that the text can't keep pace with the art, that the art lacks the punch of "One Fish" or that the ending is oddly abrupt. Actually, I'm not sure that I care, either. A lesser author's reputation might be hurt by a release of this kind, but at this point Seuss' position in the pantheon of children's authors is rock solid, and a spruced-up draft can be released as a gift to fans and friends, with no harm done.
Kids who like animals will revel in this trip to the pet store, and the rest of us will get a powerful reminder that the spontaneity and freshness that Geisel achieved in his greatest works was hard-won, the result of many drafts and much agonizing.
"You forget all about time," Geisel wrote in his New York Times Book Review account of the creation of "The Cat in the Hat," in which he compared writing with a ridiculously small beginner vocabulary to making "apple stroodle without stroodles."
"You go to work with what you have! You take your limited, uninteresting ingredients (in my case 223 words) and day and night, month after month, you mix them up into thousands of different combinations. You make a batch. You taste it. Then you hurl it out the window. Until finally one night, when it is darkest just before dawn, a plausible stroodle-less stroodle begins to take shape before your eyes!"
"What Pet Should I Get?" is no stroodle-less stroodle, but it's an interesting footnote to an extraordinary career.
"What Pet Should I Get?"
By Dr. Seuss, Random House Books for Young Readers, 48 pages, $17.99