Sixty years ago today, Random House published Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss's best-selling book, and a book widely accepted as one of the greatest children's picture books ever published. Green Eggs and Ham, which centers on a character named Sam-I-Am who tries to pressure or bribe an unnamed narrator (later referred to as Guy-am-I) to eat green eggs and ham. The book has been published continuously since 1960, and as of 2014 had sold at least 8 million copies. It came on the heels of Seuss's wildly successful The Cat in the Hat and, like Cat, limited its vocabulary significantly to accommodate a list of acceptable vocabulary words for young readers.
In the case of The Cat in the Hat, Seuss was limited to a list of between 250 and 300 words, and ended up using just 236 -- but writing it was an arduous process. His friend and editor, Bennett Cerf, bet him $50 he could not write a book using just 50 unique words, and Green Eggs and Ham was the result. Both books were used as reading primers, in the hopes of pushing out uninspired books like the Fun With Dick and Jane stories, which Seuss viewed as boring, and thought talked down to children, making them less excited to read.
"Seuss, who who had agonized and struggled with a broader and less restrictive word list as he worked on The Cat in the Hat, nevertheless rose to the occasion," wrote Brian Jay Jones, author of the recent biography Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Birth of an American Imagination. "But it's probably no coincidence that the resulting book was all about convincing someone to do something they didn’t really want to do. Green Eggs and Ham would be its own kind of misery, requiring Seuss to create complicated charts, checklists, and multiple word counts as he struggled to keep track of the words he was using. He also imposed on himself a requirement to stick with one-syllable words, though he would make an exception for 'anywhere,' which was made up of two short words that young readers would know."
Jones also notes that publishers are often less than forthcoming about providing exact sales numbers, and that as a result the estimates for sales of Green Eggs and Ham range from as low as 8 million to as high as 200 million.
Green Eggs and Ham, in any case, is Seuss's best-selling book, and the one that would be most often referenced during signing appearances and other public events later in life. The author was reportedly served variations on the titular dish, by well-meaning individuals, for years, and hated it.
The book has been adapted a number of times, most recently as an animated series on Netflix which has a second season -- called Green Eggs and Ham: The Second Helping -- coming soon.