ICQ 2003/1Class Notes

Rhyme Time


Tish Saumsiegle Rabe '73 makes learning fun.

by Maura Stephens

Tish Saumsiegle Rabe
Tricky Work: the author

A crooning extinct reptile was what clinched the deal. "Morris O-roarus was a brachiosaurus/Had the best voice in the dinosaur chorus," went the poem Tish Saumsiegle Rabe '73 submitted to Random House Children's Books in 1995. She was told that while they didn't normally publish rhyme that wasn't written by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Geisel's widow, Audrey, was interested in finding writers who could mimic his style and continue producing his children's books.

Rabe (pronounced "RAH-bee") got the gig, and since then she has been hard at work as one of the authors in the continuing series of Dr. Seuss books. Her first project was adapted from the popular Nickelodeon television series The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. "It was a labor-intensive project," Rabe recalls, because the scripts were not in rhyme and the plots were sometimes sketchy for a full-length book. "The challenge to writing Dr. Seuss is that the rhythm of each line must be the same, which isn't easy."

Is a Camel a Mammal?She went on to contribute to the Cat in the Hat's beginning science book series, re searching facts and writing in rhyme for an early-childhood reading level in Fine Feathered Friends, On Beyond Bugs, There's No Place Like Space, and Is a Camel a Mammal? Oh the Things You Can Do That Are Good for You was published in 2001, and There's a Map on My Lap was released last September.

Oh Baby, the Places You'll Go! A Book to Be Read in Utero was inspired by a study in which pregnant women read The Cat in the Hat to their fetuses. The book is a collection of favorite sections from Seuss classics; to prepare, Rabe says, "I locked myself in the library and read all the Dr. Seuss books."

The vocal performance major had headed for New York City right after graduation, looking for singing work. "Having toured with [IC professor] Steve Brown's jazz band and having sung in a folk-rock band in high school, I just assumed I'd keep on singing in New York," she says. "For years I did sing at Catch a Rising Star -- back when Pat Benatar was first singing there and Freddy Prinze was doing stand-up comedy. I went to audition after audition, but soon discovered that my voice sounded much like the voices of many other singers in the city. It just didn't stand out enough. Also -- a word to the current IC music students -- my sight-singing wasn't strong enough. When you're booked to sing a jingle, time costs money, so they expect you to be able to sing the jingle straight through the first time you see it. I found this very difficult."

During a visit home she learned that the music director from her high school, Dave Connor, had been named assistant musical director Bert and the Broken Teapotfor Sesame Street. He helped her land a job as the show's music production assistant. "I spent days and days on the phone booking other singers to sing on Sesame Street, which wasn't easy. But one day, one of the composers asked me if I'd like to try singing on a Muppet piece. I was thrilled. My first off-camera vocal performance for Sesame Street was in 1974 as a Grouchette singing back-up for Oscar the Grouch on a song called "Swamp Mushy Muddy" ("It's ugly and smelly and awful / and fishing is unlawful. / Swamp Mushy Muddy is my home sweet home.") It aired on the series for 10 years." The creative atmosphere at the show also inspired her to write; Bert and the Broken Teapot was her first published book.

Next she began producing 3-2-1 Contact, a science series for elementary schoolchildren in which she did everything -- researching the science, writing all the songs and all the scripts, and doing it all in a very short time frame. "The topics I had to write about were amazing and challenging," she remembers. "One of my favorites was a song about mammals called 'People Are Mammals Too!' It went: 'A bear and a monkey / A mouse and a raccoon / A camel, a tiger / A horse and a baboon / Have something in common / With the panda in the zoo / They're all mammals, / They're all mammals. / People are mammals too!' Years later, people would stop me and say the thing they remember most about 3-2-1 Contact is the songs."

The Song of the Zubble-wumpA stint at Random House children's video division followed, during which she produced the animated special The City Mouse and the Country Mouse for HBO. A downsizing ("it was really a purge") made her decide to try freelancing. That's when she landed the Dr. Seuss authoring gig, thanks to that crooning extinct reptile. In addition to her ongoing work on the Seuss books, she recently completed work as the story editor for a new TV series for Scholastic Entertainment based on the popular I Spy children's books. "I headed a team of 10 writers, creating 52 episodes of the series that was produced in stop-motion animation. I wrote the final episode as a musical and plan to sing a few of those roles myself," she says. The series is scheduled to begin airing on HBO Family next December. And as if that weren't enough, Rabe just wrote three books for Blue's Clues (a book series built around the television series of the same name) and has two new Dr. Seuss books scheduled for release in the next year and a half: Inside Your Outside: All About the Human Body and Oh Say Can You Say What's the Weather Today?

With all these activities, she has managed to raise a family. She re-met John Rabe, with whom she'd performed in that folk-rock band back in high school, at their 15-year high school reunion, and they married soon after. "Steve Brown, my mentor and friend, played at our wedding in New York, and together we wrote a song, 'Sweet Angel,' for the wedding," she says of her IC bandleader. "Steve wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics." The Rabes have two children, Johnny, 13, and Melody, 12 (named for Tish's IC friend Melody Meitrott Libonati '74) -- and John has two children from a previous marriage, Vivian, 20, and Charlie, 19.

Rabe hopes to introduce her children to IC and the beloved jazz professor who inspired her so many years ago. "At the IC Centennial celebration in 1992 Steve asked me back to sing with his Jazz Lab, and it was a huge thrill. I read the article in the magazine about him [ICQ, 2002/2], and now I'm planning to call him and bring my family up to see his next Jazz Workshop concert.

And have her children helped in her work as a children's author? Indubitably. "Before I send each manuscript out, I ask one of my children to read it out loud to me," Rabe says. "In Dr. Seuss's books, anyone could read them and the rhythm of the words came out just right. This is something I strive for, but it's tricky. Often, when I hear the kids read it and they stumble over something, I can fix it before I send it out. In my last book, Oh Say Can You Say What's the Weather Today? my son was reading the following stanza:

Here are two words that
we learned on vacation.
Rain, hail, and snow are
called precipitation.
Water changing to gas
is called evaporation.

Then he suddenly turned to me and said, 'Gas turning to water is called condensation.' Needless to say, I put that in and made it three words we learned on vacation."

[Ed. note: ICQ/December 1989 featured a story on Rabe's work with Children's Television Workshop.

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 28 April, 2003