Hats off to Dr Seuss!
The Cat in the Hat
Theodor Seuss Geisel
(Seuss was his mother’s maiden name. The title of ‘Dr’ was self-appointed.)
Who’s it for?:
Children just starting to read independently.
And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (Rejected by over 20 publishers before being accepted by an old schoolmate as a junior editor for Vanguard Press, USA.)
About the author:
Ted, as he was known in his family, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA in 1904 and educated at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Lincoln College, Oxford. He first began drawing his ‘zoomorphic’ creatures in his early childhood when visiting the zoo where his father worked. He went on to become a freelance cartoonist for American magazines and advertising agencies, and a writer and animator in Hollywood.
In 1957 he was challenged by a publishing colleague, William Spaulding, to ‘write a story that first-graders can’t put down’, but he was given a list of only 225 words from which to do so. The Cat in the Hat, now celebrating its 40th year of publication, took Theodor nine months to write, but once he had found his magic formula there was no looking back. He went on to create a whole new genre of reading books, promoting the idea of reading for fun and offering something completely different from reading schemes and textbooks. The series, Beginner Books, published by Random House, USA and HarperCollins, UK, became hugely successful and still are today. The 48 titles have sold over 200 million copies in 20 different languages.
Theodor Seuss Geisel also wrote poetry collections, short stories for adults, plays and a film, and received many awards throughout his career, including two Academy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and five honorary doctorates!
He died in 1991. His widow, Audrey Geisel, still lives in their home in California.
What it’s about?
In The Cat in the Hat two children, and a surprised goldfish in a bowl, suddenly hear the bump that announces the dramatic arrival of the Cat in the Hat, who states that although it is wet and not sunny, they could still have lots of fun without Motheraround. There follows an unloosening of all rules of ‘proper’ children’s behaviour and pandemonium ensues as the Cat and his sidekicks, Thing One and Thing Two, run riot through the house. Luckily for them all, however, peace is restored just moments before Mother returns. Phew!
Claim to fame:
The biggest selling children’s book in the English language.
Classic Seuss qualities:
Dr Seuss always wrote with the child very much in mind, and most of his books have a distinctive formula which has proved so enduringly popular. The recurring features are rhyme (mostly a simple tetrameter), alliteration and rhythm. The stories rattle along (pausing for breath only now and again with a single line of prose), and tend to follow a set pattern: that of starting out with something ordinary, then inventing something new, wild and crazy, and then returning to the safety of the outset. The combination of rhyme, highly imaginative characters, nonsense humour and wacky word-play, with an exaggerated, unsophisticated cartoon-style of illustration (using thick black outlines and flat colour) has a particularly strong child appeal.
Consciously or subconsciously children still love not only Seuss’s eccentricity, but also the anarchic elements of The Cat in the Hat i.e. the flouting of authority, and getting away with it without punishment. Many readers also find satisfying the feelings of growing anxiety aroused by the somewhat subversive Cat, coupled with the sense of relief of not being found out at the end. The angry fish (‘“You SHOULD NOT be here/When our mother is not./You get out of this house!”/Said the fish in the pot.’) could be seen to represent the children’s super-ego.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
The Cat in the Hat Dictionary in French
The Cat in the Hat Songbook
Other best loved titles in the Beginner Books series:
Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks, Hop on Pop.
The Cat in the Hat has been reissued by HarperCollins Children’s Books in a 40th Anniversary hardback edition (0 00 172020 1, £12.99) and in paperback as part of ‘The Classic Collection’ (0 00 171303 5, £4.99).
Helen Levene works in publishing.