Published in 1937 by Vanguard Press
Review by Anne Carroll Moore:
“So completely spontaneous that the American child can take it to his heart on sight… As original in conception, as spontaneous in the rendering as it is true to the imagination of a small boy.”
Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book is a celebration of a child’s ability to imagine the most grand things in very mundane surroundings. A young boy named Marco is accused of having an overactive imagination. His father lectures, “Stop telling such outlandish tales, Stop turning minnows into whales.”
Marco admits that during his walk along Mulberry Street, to and back from school, all he saw was a boring old horse and cart. He just can’t settle for that so he starts to imagine the cart pulled by a Zebra. Then he takes it even further and imagines a charioteer being pulled by the Zebra. That’s not enough so he makes the Zebra a Reindeer, but then realizes Reindeers should pull a sleigh! But that’s so obvious, “Say, even Jane could think of that” (a jab at the Dick and Jane stories that were popular at the time.)
So, Marco adds a blue elephant with a Rajah on its back! It gets more and more exciting and outlandish with the mayor in attendance and a ten-foot beard, and police officers, and confetti!
Then he finally reaches home and rushes up the stairs to tell his dad about this story that no one can beat, but it is so grand that he just doesn’t know where to start. Finally his dad asks him “did nothing excite you or make your heart beat?” and Marco answers, “Nothing…but a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.”
This book is a wonderful introduction to Seuss’ style of writing for children. It has a merriment about it and it doesn’t condescend to its readers. Seuss was quoted in an interview in 1985 saying,
“I think I communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that.”
When Beatrix Potter (another of my absolute favorite writers and artists) read And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street she wrote to a friend,
“The cleverest book I have met with for many years. The swing and merriment of the pictures and the natural truthful simplicity of the untruthfulness.”
There is an obvious untruthfulness in the way that Marco exaggerates and makes up the many additions to the horse and cart, but there is also an amazing truthfulness to it. In Marco’s mind he really does see all of those things, because he has a child’s imagination.
Seuss’ had a difficult time getting publishers to fully appreciate the style of his first children’s book. Many publishers claimed that it was “too different” or that it “lacked a moral lesson.” It didn’t “transform children into good citizens.” I would argue that while there may not be a “moral” lesson there is, in fact, a lesson.
I think it’s important that the story ends with him saying that all he saw was a plain old horse and cart not only because it brings the story full circle, but also because it shows that the story isn’t about children lying. In the end he tells his father the truth of what he saw. Instead, the ending shows us the development of Marco’s imagination and that really what he sees is just for him, of course his father would see it as exaggeration, but in a child’s mind it’s creation. It’s not a lie, it’s a transformation of something mundane into something exciting.
In my interpretation the lesson is for the adult, not the child. While it is important to teach children not to lie it is also important to foster their imaginations and understand that they are exploring and creating. Turning minnows into whales is something to encourage, because we know perfectly well that there was no elephant pulling a brass band down Mulberry Street. If the exaggeration is so extreme that it is clear that there is no truth to it then it is no longer a lie, but an entirely new idea merely inspired by the original “truth”. Adults use this idea to make things more exciting for children all the time. For example, taking a spoon of baby food and making plane sounds as it draws nearer to your babies mouth. It’s such a ridiculous idea that we wouldn’t say that the parent is lying to the child about their food being a plane, they are simply creating a whole new idea to make something mundane into something exciting.
Mulberry Street is an actual street in Springfield Massachusetts where Seuss’ was born, but the original inspiration for And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street came from a pretty interesting source. Seuss explains,
“In the fall of 1936, while aboard the S.S. Kungsholm on a long rainy crossing of the Atlantic, I amused myself by putting words to the rhythm of the ship’s engines.”
He started out by putting the words of The Night Before Christmas to the same rhythm:
(1) Twas the night (2) before Christ (3)mas, when all (4) through the house
(1) And to think (2) that I saw (3) it on Mul (4) berry Street
The original title was actually A Story That No One Can Beat. The summary on the back cover states “How a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street, Grows into a story that no one can beat…” The change in title came when he finally found a publisher that was interested. Actually a publisher sort of found him.
After being rejected by 27 publishers Seuss was walking down a busy street in New York when he ran into and old Dartmouth classmate, Mike McClintock. McClintock had recently become a juvenile publisher at Vanguard Publishing. Seuss showed him the book and from there it was passed up to the President. The only thing that Seuss was asked to change was the title.
To show his appreciation for his old classmate the book is dedicated to McClintock’s wife Helene because she is “the Mother of the One and Original Marco” which is McClintock’s son.
“I swung ’round the corner
And dashed up through the gate
I ran up the steps
And felt simply GREAT!”
This is my favorite quote because it expresses how excited Marco is about all that he’s imagined and how he can’t wait to tell his father about it. It also sounds the most like A Night Before Christmas.
“Away to the window
I flew Like a flash
Tore open the shutters
And threw up the sash.”
There’s so much action and excitement. I just love it.
The full SHABANG!
I also find it interesting that the original publication is careful not to give anything away on the cover, but a later publication gives you a peak of what is inside:
Thanks for reading,
Jack St. Rebor