The Current

Green Eggs and Ham is 60 years old. It started as a $50 bet between Dr. Seuss and his publisher

Dr. Seuss biographer Brian Jay Jones explains how a wager between the author and his publisher became a beloved children's classic.

Dr. Seuss wrote the beloved classic based on a list of just 50 words

Dr. Seuss was an American children's author, political cartoonist, illustrator, poet, animator, screenwriter and filmmaker. (Courtesy of Dr. Seuss Enterprises/earlymoments.com and thoughtco.com, Random House Children's Books)

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Dr. Seuss biographer Brian Jay Jones says that people have tried to find hidden meaning in Green Eggs and Ham since it was published 60 years ago this week.

But he said the beloved children's author was upfront about the book starting life as a wager with his publisher, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf.

"What he said about Green Eggs and Ham … is 'Bennett Cerf bet me I couldn't write a book using 50 words or less, and I wanted to show him that I could,'" said Jones, author of Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination.

Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960, three years after The Cat in the Hat, written by the author and illustrator Theodor Geisel, under the pen name Dr. Seuss. 

Dr. Seuss at his drafting table in his home office in La Jolla, Calif., on April 25, 1957. (Gene Lester/Getty Images)

He wrote the earlier classic from a list of 348 words, approved by educators for books to teach children to read. Seuss used only 236 of those words, according to the author's website.

When The Cat in the Hat became a success, Cerf called Seuss up and bet him $50 US he couldn't do it again — but this time with just 50 of those words.

Suess accepted, but soon realized just what a challenge it was.

"He really agonizes over this book," Jones told The Current.

"He ends up putting maps up on the wall of his vocabulary words, and he has flow charts — it's a maths problem from him part of the time," he said.

"So it's no wonder that the ultimate plot of this book is about convincing someone to do something they didn't really want to do. Seuss had a really hard time with this book." 

The 50 words in Green Eggs and Ham

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

Could you turn them into a bestseller?

A 'crusader for children'

In Green Eggs and Ham, a character called Sam-I-Am pesters his friend to eat a plate of — you guessed it — green eggs and ham. The friend refuses with the now-familiar rhyme: "I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am."

Jones thinks that's part of the appeal for younger readers. "What little kid hasn't wanted to eat their green beans, and their parents are trying to convince them?" he said.

He described Seuss as a "crusader for children," who thought kids deserved great books they wanted to read — not books that adults thought they should be reading.

"Dr. Seuss was all about plot, about keeping the story moving forward," Jones said.

"And in Green Eggs and Ham, he is doing that from page to page, as Sam is tormenting this poor guy to try to get him to try green eggs and ham."

Sam-I-Am harangues his friend throughout the book — "Would you, could you, on a boat?" "I could not, would not, on a boat!" — before the reluctant diner relents, and finds he actually really enjoys the dish.

The book sold millions of copies since it was first published, and been adapted to stage and screen. But Jones said that while Seuss was "pleased that the book ended up selling so well," he moved on to his next project without dwelling on the book too deeply.

"It's not a book that he waxed rhapsodically on for the rest of his life.... He was very pleased that he did with it what he set out to do, and the kids loved it," he said.

"That to him was always the most important thing, was that those young readers loved it and were reading it."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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