5 Lessons Learned on Mulberry Street
I’ve had many years to enjoy Dr. Seuss’s, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” My sweet mom, Evelyn, who died two years ago at 88, used to read it to me when I was little. I have particularly vivid memories of snuggling up with her and listening wide-eyed to the story—again and again. Now, it’s my grandchildren who snuggle with me as I read it to them. Oh, the enduring power of a great book.
At its heart, this is a story about a boy making up a story. And his journey through the creative process can teach us some important lessons about writing—and life–that I, for one, am still not too old to learn.
Lesson 1: Turn your minnows into whales and your horses into elephants.
The book is about a boy, Marco, who is challenged by his father to keep his “eyelids up” to see what’s happening in the world around him as he walks to school and back. For Marco, a natural born storyteller, that’s quite a challenge, especially since his father tells him not to exaggerate about what he observes. But Marco can’t help himself. He likes to turn “minnows into whales,” and the minnow in this case turns out to be a horse and cart making its way down Mulberry Street, the same route Marco takes to school.
Like many storytellers, Marco isn’t won over by simple reality—he wants more and wails, “That can’t be my story. That’s only a start./I’ll say that a ZEBRA is pulling that cart.” And poof! The horse becomes a zebra. Marco ramps up his imagination another notch: “The story would really be better to hear/ If the driver I saw were a charioteer.” And poof! The driver is a charioteer.
With every choice, Marco ‘one-ups’ himself until he works his way up to two giraffes and an elephant, “with plenty of power and size—a blue one with plenty of fun in his eyes. And then, just to give him a little more tone,” Marco adds a “Rajah with rubies perched high on a throne.” Notice that Marco never lets the plot lull, because things in the story constantly change. No change. No story. Or at least not a very interesting one.
One of the things that I love about Marco is that he trusts his creative instincts. He never second guesses himself. A zebra becomes a reindeer, a reindeer becomes an elephant, an elephant gets two giraffe helpers. Boom, boom, boom! There’s nothing quite like the confidence of a creative child…may we all stay in touch with that part of ourselves.
Lesson 2: Add emotional tension or your delightful details won’t pack the wallop they could.
As page-turning as Marco’s delightful and unexpected details are, they would only be amusing instead of compelling if they weren’t wedged into a taut line of tension that stretches from the beginning of the story to the end. And it’s something more than the delightful, “I wonder what he’s going to do next,” kind of tension. It’s tension that pierces the heart—and twists the soul. In a kid’s book? Exactly.
Marco loves and wants to please his dad, by ‘behaving,’ but Marco can’t deny his nature and surrenders to his imagination, even though—or maybe because—he knows it’s exactly what his father doesn’t want him to do. This ‘oh, no, you’re getting yourself into really hot water’ kind of tension pervades the story because we know that with every act of imagination, Marco is digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself.
Lesson 3: Make your hero’s physical actions acts of courage.
While it’s vital to have emotionally rich characters, if they don’t DO something, all that emotion and pain, all those human quandaries could wind up as purposeless angst. About the only physical action Marco takes is putting one foot in front of the other in the act of walking. But, at his age, that seems like an act of courage and an act of love. He’s not trying to be bad. He’s just trying to respect his own nature and please his father at the same time—the universal challenge between generations. Even though Marco may be physically constrained, his imaginary friends are not and they don’t just walk toward a more interesting and freer life, they gallop.
There can be danger in such speed, a danger that Marco himself worries about—especially when it comes to the corner of Mulberry and Bliss. And unless, to paraphrase the book, there’s something Marco can fix up, there’s going to be an awful traffic mix-up. Forces colliding. What fun!
As the left turn is made and disaster diverted, for the moment, the pace quickens and the plot thickens, until Marco is so excited by what he plans to tell his dad, that he races toward home, convinced he finally “had a story that no one could beat ….”
And he is right—but in the end, the pressure he feels in the presence of his father is too much to bear and he can report nothing of the delights he imagined, even when asked, “Was there nothing to look at…no people to greet? Did nothing excite you or make your heart beat?” Marco is forced, by his fear, to admit that the only thing he saw was that “plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.” It’s perhaps this aspect of Marco’s personality that tugs at my heart that most. How many of us are brimming with creative inspiration that we hesitate to share because of this kind of fear?
While this might be considered a downer of an ending, it nicely bookends the story, taking us back to where we started, a little wiser about Marco and perhaps ourselves. Marco may not have been triumphant in his own or even his father’s eyes, but I can say without reservation, that he’s been a hero of mine for over 55 years.
Lesson 4: Write words that are fun to read out loud.
Having read this books to kids and grownups, I can tell you it’s fun to read out loud. And as I finish my own young adult novel, “When Frogs Dream,” I’m reading my book to anyone who is willing to listen. I suggest you do the same with your work. There is nothing like a live audience’s response to tell you when your plot is sagging, or if something that delights you also delights someone else. I’m not alone in thinking that one of the secrets of Seuss’s success is that he made his books fun for parents to read out loud to their children.
Lesson 5: Never give up.
This story, which is the first book ever written and published by Dr. Seuss, is celebrating its 78th birthday this year (2015) has one more lesson to teach us.
The manuscript was rejected multiple times. Eventually, Seuss got lucky when he met an old friend who had just taken a job at Vanguard, and the rest is publishing history. So no matter how many times you’ve been rejected, try just one more time—it might be the one.
In closing, I’d just like to thank Dr. Seuss—and my mother—and suggest to you that if you ever need a little inspiration, or even a creative roadmap to guide you, follow Marco’s route down Mulberry Street, and let Dr. Seuss’s creative genius seep into your bones.