By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
October 13, 2014
In 1931, well before Theodor Seuss Geisel published the childrens’ books for which he achieved his fame, he was drawing ads for Flit insect spray and publishing cartoons in magazines, most notably Life and the long-defunct humor and satire magazine Judge. This exposure prompted an editor at Viking Press to call Seuss and offer him the chance to illustrate an American edition of something that had been called Schoolboy Howlers in Britain. Seuss’s first illustrated childrens’ book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was still five years in the future. Seuss (who still in those days pronounced his name in good German fashion to rhyme with “voice” instead of “moose”) ended up illustrating two volumes for Viking Press, titled Boners (which came out in February, 1931) and More Boners, which appeared that April. According to Judith & Neil Morgan’s book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, the original Boners “swept through four printings in two months to lead The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.” Buoyed by this success, Seuss tried to sell Viking on his idea to write and illustrate an alphabet book using very strange animals to illuminate the ABC’s, but Viking didn’t bite, and it would be twenty-four more years (1955) before Seuss would put out the closest thing to his old idea in On Beyond Zebra!
The Boners books were collections of purportedly authentic bloopers from classrooms and exam papers of school-children. These were allegedly submitted by teachers and others for consideration, and the editor would choose the most hilarious ones for inclusion in the books. There were four Boners books from February, 1931, to March, 1932, the first two illustrated by Seuss and the others credited to Virginia Huget. They must have been very popular, because not only did they show up on the best-seller lists, various omnibus editions of the books were packaged and re-packaged over the years. In fact, some of the unintentional puns, youthful but unintended wisdom, and malapropisms that appear in the Boners books have become somewhat legendary. A book from 2007 called Must Try Harder! The Very Worst Howlers by Schoolchildren includes a lot of the boners (“howlers” in Britain) from the Boners books alongside newer, more modern ones.
Many of the funniest jokes simply substitute an incorrect word for a correct word. Thus, we are given the observation: “Adolescence is the stage between puberty and adultery.” A simple word substitution can have the effect of causing a child to make what seems like a very adult observation, such as: “In Christianity, a man can only have one wife. This is called Monotony.” Another rather adult observation in the same vein: “The Bible is against bigamy when it says that no man can serve two masters.” Often these “boners” have the unintended, but hilarious, effect of turning innocent school-child mistakes into rather ribald jokes. For example: “A census taker is a man who goes from house to house increasing the population.” Sometimes, a child just gets things backwards, as in: “1066 is in the ninth century because centuries always for some reason or other fall back one.” Other times, a child, not knowing the correct test answer, is just innocently honest: to the request “Write what you know of the Last Supper” one child answered, “I was away for that. I had the measles.” And sometimes, a child can just cut to the chase like no adult ever could: when asked “Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?,” the answer given was “At the bottom.”
An unintended effect of the Boners books is to show those intellectuals among us today how deprived our children are in the era of “No Child Left Behind” (read: EVERY child left behind), which is also the era of teaching to the standardized exam to the detriment of all else. The school-children of 1931 who wrote the “boners” may not have understood everything they were being taught in school, but there was at least an attempt being made to expose the material to them. These children were studying (and yes, making lots of funny mistakes along the way) topics as diverse as classical history and mythology, science, mathematics, religion, literature, and more. Most schoolchildren today couldn’t read the Boners books and laugh, because modern education has not provided them with a matrix for interpreting the humor. And that is lamentable.