Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss, was an American author and illustrator, known for writing some of the most influential children’s books of the 20th century. Many are familiar with his classics, like Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Dr. Seuss wrote over 60 books during his career, many of which achieved widespread acclaim. Among his most famous works is Green Eggs and Ham, which was published on August 12, 1960. In the book, a character named “Sam-I-am” tries to convince an unnamed character to try a plate of delicious green eggs and ham.
This simple yet endearing story went on to sell over 8 million copies, and is commonly considered one of the best children’s books of all time. Even more impressive is that the book was the result of a $50 bet.
The Green Eggs and Ham Bet
Dr. Seuss began his career as an illustrator after leaving Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1927. He had some modest success early on, and many of his drawings were featured in popular magazines of the time.
It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that Seuss’ career would really take off. During the 1950s, a common critique of children’s literature was that it was uninteresting and boring. Many books for early learners didn’t necessarily inspire kids to want to read more. Dr. Seuss would buck that trend. His early children’s books earned praise for their silly characters, creative wordplay, and wacky settings. They also were noted for their popularity among kids.
In 1957, Dr. Seuss would co-found Beginner Books, a subsidiary of the Random House publishing company, with his wife. The first book published by Beginner Books was Dr. Seuss’ acclaimed The Cat in the Hat. At 60 pages long, the book contained only 236 unique words.
With the success of The Cat in the Hat, Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, wanted Seuss to once again put out a popular and easily accessible children’s book. In 1960, he bet Dr. Seuss $50 to write a best-selling children’s book that would contain fewer than 100 unique words. Cerf didn’t really think this would be possible, but Dr. Seuss was up to the challenge.
A few months after he accepted the challenge, Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham, which received international praise and became a quick best-seller. And Seuss was able to accomplish this using only 50 unique words rather than the 100 outlined in the bet.
In the end, Bennett Cerf never paid up on his end of the bet, but something tells us that was fine by Seuss. Seuss was able to prove that a simple plot, a few carefully chosen words, and some fun illustrations are all it takes to produce an instant classic.
The 50 Words
If you are curious, the 50 words in Green Eggs and Ham are:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
“I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-am.”