The Story Behind The Newly Discovered Dr. Seuss Book

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Theodor Seuss Geisel—who was already beloved for his many Dr. Seuss books—penned a draft for What Pet Should I Get? Although the book made it through many rounds of Seuss' laborious self-editing to the final stage of preparation—which features words typed on small squares of paper and taped in place on the artwork—it was never published. Now, almost 25 years after Seuss died in 1991, you'll be able to find What Pet Should I Get? on bookstore shelves starting July 28.

After Seuss died, his widow, Audrey Geisel, and an assistant cleaned out his old office. Most of the valuable illustrations and early drafts were donated to the University of California, San Diego; but some loose pages and project folders ended up in a box that went unnoticed for many years. In 2013, Audrey finally decided to sort through the contents of that box and get the last of Seuss' original works appraised. It was then that she found What Pet Should I Get? and two other unpublished stories.

To turn the file labeled "The Pet Shop" into the first 21st century addition to the Seussian catalog, the family called up his former editor at Random House, Cathy Goldsmith—"our lasting link to Dr. Seuss," as Susan Brandt, president of licensing and marketing for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, described her. Goldsmith was nervous to impose her vision on this unfinished work, but she relied on her years of experience with Seuss—which included hand-coloring for him under his direction at the end of his life—to try and posthumously interpret his wishes. She carefully selected which hand-scrawled edits he might have implemented, creating storyboards on the wall just as the late author had, and studied the colors of other similar-era Seuss books for the illustrations, ultimately hand-coloring four or five different versions before selecting the final shades.

The finished product tells the tale of two siblings who Seuss fans might recognize. The narrator and his sister, Kay, are the same kids who appear in One Fish Two Fish, which came out in 1960. The increasingly imaginative characters and boisterous rhymes are classic Seuss. But the story is not quite as fantastical or freewheeling as One Fish Two Fish. The brother and sister arrive at the pet store determined to pick a pet but find their growing list of (occasionally fictional) options overwhelming. The perfectly proportioned moral being that one should learn to make up one's mind lest one risk, "If we do not choose, / we will end up with NONE."

In the Sunday Book Review in The New York Times, Maria Russo posits that this slight concession to convention is what caused Seuss to set What Pet Should I Get? aside. Audrey has said that she suspects her late husband simply forgot about that project as his fame and laundry list of story ideas grew. But Russo speculates that the decision to pass over What Pet Should I Get? was more intentional, suggesting that:

He looked over the book, and he talked it over with [his first wife] Helen; he thought about how much fun he had had with all its crazy creatures, and he started playing around with another book that would let the sister and brother off the hook—let them forget about their pressing pet store errand and instead hang out all day long in the commerce-free, parent-free world of “One Fish.”

With Theodor Geisel gone we can never really know why he made the choices he did regarding this or any other story. But for fans of the author, What Pet Should I Get? will offer a chance to revisit the rollicking world of Seuss.