The Secret Dr. Seuss: Tish Rabe '73 is the author behind the modern-day Cat in the Hat
During her storied career in entertainment and publishing, Tish Rabe ’73 has worked with several famous characters: Big Bird, Clifford, the Berenstain Bears, Curious George, and Cinderella, to name a few, but it was a broccoli-loving dinosaur who helped the now-prolific children’s author and songwriter get a chance to write for the one-and-only Cat in the Hat.
Maurus O’Raurus was an
who had the best voice in
the Dinosaur chorus.
He liked to play tennis
and swim in the sea,
but mostly he liked to eat
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, had just begun working on a series of rhyming science books for early readers prior to his death in 1991. His widow, Audrey, wanted the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library project to go on.
While Rabe (pronounced “Robby”) was pitching Maurus’s story in 1995, executives from Penguin Random House were starting to search for authors who could write in Dr. Seuss’s style.
“My little Maurus O’Raurus brachiosaurus book crossed their desk at exactly the right time,” says Rabe. “Turns out it had the same rhythm and rhyme as the classic Dr. Seuss books.”
Penguin Random House called to tell her they would not be picking up Maurus (nearly 25 years later, his story still has not been published) but that they wanted her to work with them and Dr. Seuss Enterprises on a series of rhyming science books.
“I went in for my first interview and thought I was going to have to pitch ideas,” she says. “But they handed me a stack of pages and asked if I could have two books done in four months.”
Those first two books, Is a Camel a Mammal? All about Mammals and Fine Feathered Friends: All about Birds were released in 1998. Rabe has since written 18 more, including Oh, the Things You Can Do That Are Good for You: All about Staying Healthy, which included 16 additional pages inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America. Obama read the book to children in the White House in January 2015. Rabe’s latest book in the series, Who Hatches the Egg? All about Eggs, is slated for release in early 2017.
Some of Rabe’s biggest fans are her children and grandchildren, who often get an early look at the work — and sometimes influence the final product. Rabe’s son Johnny Rabe ’11 recalls how he made a joke about the Green Eggs and Ham character Sam in relation to a book about beaches that his mother was working on.
“I suggested Clam-I-Am, and it stuck,” he says. “We still love reading her books. She has done so much for children’s media, and not just the Dr. Seuss books."
Despite her success, Rabe — who has more than 160 books and 200 songs (and counting) to her credit — didn’t set out to become a children’s book author. Growing up in Waltham, Massachusetts, she enjoyed creative writing class but aspired to become a professional singer.
In fact, Rabe met her husband, John, in high school when they both joined a folk rock band. He played bass and banjo and she sang. They went their separate ways but reconnected at their 15-year high school reunion and married shortly thereafter.
Rabe first heard about Ithaca College from Arthur Badavis ’71, who was friends with her older brother.
“Some of his friends hated where they were going to school. They hated the weather; they hated the food,” she says. “[Badavis] raved about Ithaca from the minute he arrived at my mother’s house. He couldn’t even sit down to have dinner. He just kept going on and on. He looked right at me and said, ‘Tish, this is the perfect school for you.’”
So she visited for an interview and audition with the School of Music as a high school junior.
“Truly, from the minute I got there, this was it,” says Rabe. “I never looked at another school. I never walked another campus. I applied early and got in.”
At Ithaca, Rabe quickly joined (now retired) director of jazz studies Steve Brown’s band. “She was one of the starring vocalists,” recalls friend David Leiman ’74, who played baritone sax in the IC Jazz Lab.
Rabe believes she’s one of only a few, if not the only one, in her class year to have gotten only a vocal performance degree.
“I was totally convinced I was going to be a Broadway, opera, or jazz star,” she says. “I didn’t see the point in getting a music education degree if I didn’t want to teach elementary music ed — so I didn’t.”
After graduation, Rabe spent a summer singing with Brown’s band, Que Pasa, and then traveled to New York City hunting for work. She went to audition after audition without success and then finally made it to one of the last rounds for the Broadway production of Annie only to be turned away because she couldn’t dance.
While she was pounding the pavement in New York, her high school music teacher had just taken a job as an assistant music director with Sesame Street. He offered her a position as a production assistant in the show’s music department, and Rabe took it.
“I sang all the time at work because my first job was hiring the other backup singers to sing with the Muppets, and what I really wanted to do was sing for them myself,” Rabe recalls, breaking into the song that she sings to children during her author visits:
“I sang when I typed, and I sang when I filed, and I sang when I answered the phone: ‘Sesame Street, may I help you?’”
Eventually, one of the composers took notice and cast Rabe as one of Oscar the Grouch’s Grouchettes to back him up on the classic song “Swamp Mushy Muddy.” (Check it out on YouTube, and you’ll see Rabe as the blonde Muppet on the right.)
Other opportunities followed, including her first book, for the Sesame Street Growing Up series Bert and the Broken Teapot, based on a story from her own childhood.
Rabe went on to take roles in other children’s media, including producing the PBS show 3-2-1 Contact, where she wrote science-based scripts and song lyrics (garnering two daytime Emmy nominations), and Penguin Random House, where she worked on books, audiobooks, and home videos for series such as Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, and the Berenstain Bears. She also worked for Soundprints, a publisher and distributor of children’s books, where her projects included writing stories and song lyrics — and then narrating and singing that work — for Disney Princess and Bambi books and audiobooks.
“It was really fun to have written the song, sung the song, and then narrated the book,” she says, breaking again into song: “Every beautiful princess you happen to see, is learning the alphabet from A to Z.”
One of Rabe’s more challenging projects was HBO Family’s I Spy, based on the series of search-and-find books. “HBO wanted a buddy series, two friends having adventures,” she says. “But there weren’t any characters in the book series, so we had to create them from scratch.
“We literally wrote the scripts backwards, starting with the poem at the end — ‘I spy a lemon, a popsicle stick in the sand’ — and then we went backwards to figure out how they found all the things that are in the poem.”
The Cat in the Hat books also presented a challenge. “The real Dr. Seuss,” as Rabe calls him, used a particular rhythm in his writing and a strict rhyme scheme where the second and fourth lines always rhymed — not easy when you must make sure the text is scientifically accurate.
“When you put things into rhyme, you have to be careful not to mess up the science,” she says.
Rabe researches each topic thoroughly, most often using children’s books and other texts that break down complex subjects into easy-to-grasp concepts. One of her favorite verses is from Fine Feathered Friends:
When birds want to go
on a winter vacation,
they all take a trip
and they call it migration.
Each book takes roughly two years from start to finish, and Penguin Random House has scientists in the field critique each text and approve the illustrations. When the science changes, the book must, too.
“I had to completely rewrite four pages of There’s No Place Like Space when Pluto got demoted,” she said. “[Through] the whole book, there were nine planets: ‘You will see all nine planets circle the sun, and soon you’ll be able to name every one.’ Well that’s fine, but now there were eight. So we had to take Pluto out of there, add some [new] pages, and re-issue the book.”
Naturally, Rabe’s work has galvanized her on the issue of children’s literacy, which she speaks about frequently at events and author visits.
“I’m sort of amazed, being part of the early seasons of Sesame Street, that this continues to be an issue in the United States,” she says. “We are still sending kids to preschool and kindergarten who can’t read.”
Two years ago, Rabe joined the advisory board of the Connecticut branch of Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit organization that gives free books to low-income children during their pediatrician visits. Doctors “prescribe” that parents read 20 minutes each day with their kids.
“I learned some of the books [were being given] to caregivers who struggled with reading themselves,” she says. “They needed simple board books with few words on each page, but they were hard to find.”
For years Rabe had wanted to publish a book that included questions that would promote dialogic reading, which has proven to help children learn to read faster than if they just sit and listen to a story, so she quickly self-published a simple board book called Love You, Hug You, Read to You. The text includes questions for parents to ask their children, like “What is Mama Cat doing?” and “What is [the polar bears’] book about?”
Love You, Hug You, Read to You proved so popular that Penguin Random House picked it up for distribution, and a Reach Out and Read nonprofit in New York requested a bilingual Spanish/English version for their families, ¡Te amo, te abrazo, leo contigo! Rabe says she hopes to write more titles featuring the series’ characters as well as other interactive books that will encourage families to read together.
Being an advocate for early childhood literacy isn’t the only way Rabe is giving back. Ithaca College has continued to play a major role in her life. After reconnecting with former bandmate Leiman at an alumni event, Rabe talked with him about creating a scholarship for an Ithaca music student in good academic standing who was in need financially. She said she appreciated the Presidential Scholarship that her son received when he attended IC and hoped to help another student in the same way. Fortunately Leiman’s employer was willing to match his charitable donations, making it easier for them to reach their goal.
“We are thrilled that, as of a few months ago, we were able to finish our initial funding,” Leiman says. At the time the fund was set up, a minimum of $25,000 was required.
With that in place, the first Tish Rabe ’73 and David Leiman ’74 Scholarship will be awarded this academic year for an expected $1,000. Ideally, the candidate will be someone who can accept as a sophomore and then receive the scholarship again as a junior and senior, he said.
Rabe and Leiman have plans to continue making contributions to the fund with the aim of pushing the grant award higher. Leiman has since restructured his estate plans to leave more money to the fund as well.
“Without Tish’s initial idea and her guidance, it wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
While writing remains Rabe’s focus, the career twists that pushed her into publishing have given her the freedom to pursue music on her own terms. Her jazz quintet, Tish Rabe and Friends, performs regularly in New York City and Connecticut. She sings, her husband plays the bass, and their children, Johnny and Melody (named after Tish’s classmate Melody Meitrott Libonati ’74), make guest appearances.
“We’re having a ball,” she says. “There’s no pressure, and it’s a lot of fun.” The lesson is another straight from Geisel’s classic Oh, the Places You’ll Go:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
“I tell all the kids during my school author visits that writing children's books was not plan A in my life. It was definitely plan B,” Rabe says. “It’s not what I went to college to do. But the good news is you can change your career path. It’s not about giving up what you love to do but finding a different way to do it.”