You’re Only Old Once!


Published 1986 by Random House

Back Cover reads:

“Is this a children’s book?
Well…not immediately.
You buy a copy for your child now
and you give it to him on his 70th birthday.”

Review: “A charming guide through a daunting maze of geriatric medicine which Geisel knows well.”


The story opens with an old man sitting next to a fish tank and reading a magazine. The anonymous narrator tells the reader:

“One day you will read
in the National Geographic
of a faraway land
with no smelly bad traffic.”

When the page is flipped the book burst with Seussian imagination as the reader looks at the land of Fotta-fa-Zee where everyone feels healthy and fine even though they are one hundred and three, because the air is so good and they chew nuts from the Tutt-a-Tutt Tree.

“This gives strength to their teeth,
it gives length to their hair,
and they live without doctors,
with nary a care.”

The next flip of the page brings us back to the old man, but he is smaller and we see more of his setting. He is in a clinic waiting room and their are signs that read “Optoglymics” and “Dermoglymics”. From behind a wall, a disembodied arm gestures for him to come. The text tells the reader this is “the Golden Years Clinic on Century Square” and that the old man is there for “Spleen Readjustment and Muffler Repair.”

Now the old man goes through a round of tests. The first one is an eye exam. His head is held up to a very Seussian machine that projects the words:


Then he goes through line of questioning about his body parts and his grandparent’s body parts or if his cousins suffered from ailments like, “Bus Driver’s Blight, Chimney Sweep’s Stupor, or Prune Picker’s Plight?”

Next the old man is standing in a large tub with no shirt as a doctor stairs at his belly and a large sign in the back reads Good, Bad and So-So. For our hero the arrow points at So-So. When the page is flipped he is in the same machine, but now he has no pants and there are two more doctors looking at him from all sides. The arrow now points at Bad.

Now the old man is back in the waiting room with the fish, named Norval, but this time he has a rob and slippers on.

“What those Oglers have learned
they’re not ready to tell.
Clinicians don’t spout
their opinions pell-mell.”


Yet again, another disembodied arm gestures for our hero to come. Now he gets his ear checked with a bellows blown through one ear and a candle held against the other. Then the doctors bring in all sorts of noisy items including Seussian instruments, a cow, a parrot, an old grandfather clock and a party noise-maker.


Then it’s back to the hall with Norval the fish. This time a man with a wheelchair comes to collect our hero.

“With a great swish and great swank.
a wheelchair will come!
You’ve gained status and rank!
And Whelden the Wheeler will say with great pride:
‘You have qualified, sir.
You are now certified
as a VIP Case.
You’re entitled to ride!
Through thin and through thick
I’ll be at your back side.'”

Then Whelden takes the old man through Stethoscope Row where he tells our hero that Doctors Schmidt, Smoot, Sinatra, Sylvester, and Fonz won several metals in the Internal Organs Olympics last year.

Next the old man is tested for allergies. The illustration shows him on a sort of treadmill with a glass bowl over his head and two cups of water on the palms of his hands with all sorts of jars filled with all sorts of liquids all around him. Whelden the Wheeler is seen waiting patiently in the corner.

The next Seussian machine we see is basically a bed of nails on a spring attached to some sort of motor that is plugged into the wall. This time Doctor Van Ness is testing the old man’s stress levels. Then he is sent to Doctor Von Eiffel.

“Dietician Von Eiffel controls the Wuff-Whiffer,
our Diet-Devising Computerized Sniffer,
on which you just simply lie down in repose
and sniff at good food as it goes past your nose.
From caviar souffle to caribou roast,
from pemmican patties to terrapin toast,
he’ll find out by Sniff-Scan the foods you like most.

And when that guy finds out
what you like,
you can bet it
won’t be on your diet.
From here on, forget it!”


Then Whelden the Wheeler wheels the old man to the New Wing! To see several doctors:

“McGuire and McPherson and Blinn and Ballew
and Timpkins and Tompkins and Diller and Drew,
Fitzsimmons, Fitzgerald, and Fitzpatrick, too,
all of whom will prescribe a prescription for you.”

The next spread of pages shows the old man at a table covered in several different kinds of pills. There is a machine called the Pill Drill that instructs him on the long list of pills he has to take.


“This small white pill is what I munch
at breakfast and right after lunch.
I take the pill that’s kelly green
before each meal and in between.
these loganberry-colored pills
I take for early morning chills.
I take the pill with zebra stripes
to cure my early evening gripes.
These orange-tinted ones, of course,
I take to cure my charley horse.

I take three blues at half past eight
to slow my exhalation rate.
On alternate nights at nine p.m.
I swallow pinkies. Four of them.
The reds, which make my eyebrows strong,
I eat like popcorn all day long.
The speckled browns are what I keep
beside my bed to help me sleep
This long flat one is what I take
if I should die before I wake.”

Last comes the paperwork. There is a long conveyer belt that has endless amounts of little white papers that our hero has to sign so that he can be properly billed. Whelden the Wheeler stands by with extra pens. Finally the old man just needs to locate his clothes and he can be on his way. Now the reader sees the last page which is similar to the first page, but the old man is on his feet this time and headed toward the “OUT” sign.

“And you’ll know
once your necktie’s
back under your chin
and Norval has waved you
Godspeed with his fin,
you’re in pretty good shape
for the shape you are in!”


You’re Only Old Once! was inspired by Seuss’ many trips to the doctor in the later part of his life. In one waiting room he actually sat by a fish, that he named Norval. For months Seuss had been:

“…sitting in waiting rooms being bored. I began sketching what I thought was going to happen to me for the next hour and a half. I had no idea of doing a book. I just began drawing hospital machinery. In the interest of commerce, I wrote a happy ending. The other ending is unacceptable.”

His wife Audrey had convinced him to cut out some of the more serious health issues that he was actually dealing with at the time. She wanted the book to stay light and funny and Seuss agreed. He stated that some of the things he was going through were “not funny, no matter how you much you disguise it.” Perhaps that is why Seuss chose a pastel pallet for this book. One reviewer described it as, “round and billowing, in pink, blue, green and yellow, as if sculpted from ice cream.”

The book starts out with a very Seussian land of made-up creatures and names, but then becomes much more personal as you realize it is a book about Seuss’ life. He also has the narrator refer to the main character as “you” and the title says “you’re” which makes the book even more personal, because it is a telling of the reader’s own future.

He considered this book as a protest against unnecessary and expensive procedures. He said he was, “fed up of a social life consisting entirely of doctors.”


The dedication reads:

“With Affection for
Affliction with
the Members of the
Class of 1925

You’re Only Old Once! was published on Seuss’ 82nd birthday on March 2nd 1986.

Everyone at Random House Publishing agreed that it should be handled by the adult division, but Seuss felt the drawings and color still made it a classic Seuss children’s book. Seuss used his influence to keep the book in the juvenile department, but allowed the adult trade book department to market it. A new executive thought it was a “turn-off” and that “no one wanted to think about being old.” To prepare audience for what was inside the tagline “For Obsolete Children” was added and the Book of the Month club announced it as a book for “ages 95 and down.”

Seuss’ main doctor was a woman named Ruth Grobstein. He promised her there would be no female doctors. The biography that I got this information from (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel by Judith and Neil Morgan) states that there are no female doctors in the book because of this reason, but on the 13th page there is clearly a female character (whether it is a doctor or a nurse I’m not sure) looking up at the old man standing with no pants on in a metal tube.

An incomplete stanza shows Seuss’ “fill-in-the-blank” writing style:

“I remember hearing my grandfather speak of a (blank)
that is old at the end of one week
And a Nutchworm that’s old at the end of an hour
and after three minutes a (something) feels sour
(BLANK BLANK something)…reckoned
There were germs who get ancient in only one second.”

The New York Times reported You’re Only Old Once! as an adult nonfiction, where it become number one. In other publications it was listed as fiction.

Seuss received a fan letter from a woman that shares his birthday. She said in the letter that she had read You’re Only Old Once! to her husband that was recovering from chemotherapy. She “acted it out and showed him the pictures, and he chuckled and I knew I owed you a debt.” Seuss considered this letter “one of the most beautiful letters” he’d ever received.


“Your escape plans have melted!
You haven’t a chance,
for the next thing you know,
both your socks and your pants
and your drawers and your shoes
have been lost for the day.
The Oglers have blossomed
like roses in May!
And silently, grimly, they ogle away.”


I didn’t just post this image to show that there is a female doctor in the book, but I also just really enjoy the structure of this image. The quote I chose as my favorite goes along with this image. I think it just shows the height of uncomfortableness that comes with being inspected by doctors.


Thanks for reading,

Jack St. Rebor


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