A CAT TURNS 50
March 3, 2007
By ROBERT BIESELIN
The average life span of an indoor cat, according to the ASPCA, is from 13 to 17 years, proof that "The Cat in the Hat" is anything but average.
Dr. Seuss' beloved story about a mischievous cartoon cat with a penchant for wacky gadgetry and domestic disturbances has far outlasted the nine lives of its feline brethren, marking its 50th anniversary this month.
To commemorate the Cat's golden jubilee as well the good doctor's birthday (he was born Theodor Seuss Geisel, March 2, 1904) and the launch of the National Education Association's Read Across America campaign, Random House has released "The Cat in the Hat: Party Edition" ($8.99), a foil-wrapped limited edition of the classic.
To get into the spirit of the Cat's golden celebration, we decided to lend a Seuss-ian spin to the story behind the book's creation and the secrets to its longevity.
In a time when kids' books held contents so plain;
A bore being led by one Dick and one Jane,
A new proctor arrived with a lexicon spruce,
A doctor-cum-teacher with the pen name of "Seuss."
From syntax so simple came stories so nifty,
The foremost of which this month will turn 50 —
A story of mischief and mayhem, at that;
A story escorted by a hat-wearing cat,
And a boy and a girl, a Thing One and Thing Two,
And a mulish old goldfish in a house turned askew.
Not a known book before it, not new nor old
Told with such splendor the tale that it told
Buzzing and humming and happily hopping
It taught tots to read and shows no signs of stopping!
Today — even now — it continues to sell!
To find out just why, we asked Philip Nel.
"It's a children's book, but Seuss' books have always appealed to both children and adults," says Nel, associate professor of English at Kansas State University and author of "Dr. Seuss: American Icon" and "The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats." "Seuss wrote the book in the why-can't-Johnny-read crisis of the 1950s, and his conclusion was that Johnny and Susie couldn't read because the Dick and Jane books were really boring."
It was in Life magazine that John Hersey said,
Dull were the books that the children all read.
He challenged the doctor to undo the done:
To write a kids book that was simple and fun.
Being a stickler, Seuss, bent on success,
Took on the challenge and doubled the test
Beyond simple and fun, he meticulously wrote
But from a brief list of words; bound to this quote:
"Children want the same things we want," Seuss had once cited,
"to laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted."
So when "Write them a book!" the press did insist,
Seuss, with his publicist, complied a list.
From the list of four-fifty, he pared it in half,
Replacing each "ho" and each "hum" with a laugh.
"And the upshot?" you ask. Why, the upshot's quite clear:
The Cat turned the book world clear on its ear!
"But whence," you now ask, "did the idea derive?"
"How did 'The Cat in the Hat' come alive?"
"He liked to say that in frustration he would just pick the first two words off the word list that rhymed, and that would be his title," Nel says. "So he found 'cat,' and he found 'hat,' and decided the name of the book would be 'The Cat in the Hat.' ... That's probably not true. He was a very deliberate author — a perfectionist, even — but you have to remember that Seuss was more interested in telling you a good story than a true one."
In truth, as Nel says, that yarn's a tad tall;
A writer of vision, Seuss, it seems, saw it all.
Despite what Seuss said — though it was a fun ruse —
A real cat in a hat was his actual muse.
Still, no matter its origin —be it this, be it that —
The country embraced "The Cat in the Hat."
10 million prints sold to the old and the young
And its words, in turn, met 12 translated tongues.
That appeal, explains Nel, became oh, so broad
For the world, in his words, is a sucker for fraud.
"'The Cat in the Hat' is a classic American character type — the con artist," Nel says. "He sells the children on a good time, and for a while they're willing to buy it. ... He represents a certain possibility that we embrace and we like."
Five decades later, Seuss is still soaring.
And children can read without yawning or snoring.
They can wait warm indoors on the rainiest days
By windows, engaged by a book and its craze.
And a cat, who Nel notes is a lot like his maker;
An "outside-the-box" guy, a mover and shaker;
A thinker, a doer, a dreamer, a master;
A soul that no age can cast to the past or
Silence with years, be it 50 or greater.
Seuss and his Cat — concept and creator —
Are timeless and matchless, a pair for the ages;
A pair whose joint flair still flows from the pages.
Sure to amuse and teach myriad more,
And to think, it all started with a knock at the door!
By the numbers
2: Book's original cost, in dollars
12: Languages into which the book has been translated
1,626: Total words used in the book (from a list of 236)
1957: "Cat in the Hat" first published
17,000: Price fetched by a first edition, in dollars
10.5 million: Number of copies sold worldwide
Copyright 2007 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.