Cat in the Hat’s 50th Birthday

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John Hersey & Theodor Geisel

The Cat In The Hat - First Edition The following excerpt from Chapter 1, Childrens Picturebook Price Guide (Flying Moose Books, 2006):

Prior to the publication of his first children’s book in 1937, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (Random House, 1937)), Theodor Seuss Geisel was a prominent and successful humorist illustrator for such magazines as Judge and Life. By the time of The Cat In The Hat’s publication, Dr. Seuss was a very successful children’s book illustrator, having published twelve children’s books, three of which had won Caldecott Honor awards. Actually, prior to the publication of The Cat In The Hat, one could easily say that Dr. Seuss had already had two successful illustration careers, one as a humorist and one as a picturebook creator.

Mr. Geisel created The Cat In The Hat in reaction to a Life Magazine article by John Hersey, published in the May 24, 1954 issue, titled “Why Do Students Bog Down On First R? -A LOCAL COMMITTEE SHEDS LIGHT ON A NATIONAL PROBLEM: READING.” In the article, Hersey was critical of the then current state of school primers,

“In the classroom boys and girls are confronted with books that have insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children. [Existing primers] feature abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls.” “In bookstores, anyone can buy brighter, livelier books featuring strange and wonderful animals and children who behave naturally, i.e., sometimes misbehave. Given incentive from school boards, publishers could do as well with primers.”

Hersey’s arguments were enumerated in some ten pages of Life Magazine, which was the leading periodical of its time. After detailing many issues contributing to the dilemma with student’s reading, toward the end of the article, Hersey redundantly asked:

“Why should [school primers] not have pictures that widen rather than narrow the associative richness the children give to the words they illustrate-drawings like those of the wonderfully imaginative geniuses among children’s illustrators, Tenniel, Howard Pyle, “Dr. Seuss,” Walt Disney?”

Geisel responded to this “challenge” by rigidly limiting himself to a small set of words from an elementary school vocabulary list, then crafted a story based upon two randomly selected words-cat and hat. The results of this personal challenge are nothing short of amazing!

Geisel Meets Dick and Jane

The following excerpt, a ‘first hand’ report on Geisel’s arduous development of The Cat in the Hat, is reprinted from the July 6, 1957 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, “The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss”, by Robert Cahn.

Children, of course, understand and accept Geisel’s pictures, a fact which led to an unusual assignment two years ago during the height of the controversy over why Johnny can’t read. Text book publishers and some educators and parents had realized that one trouble was that Johnny’s reader wasn’t readable. Most creators of children’s primers, though experts in form, failed miserably as storytellers. What was required, the publishers knew, was the kind of story that would lead a child from page to page with suspense and delight. Yet most writers were unwilling to accept the severe vocabulary limitations required for a first grade reader.

Into the impasse stepped Geisel. He offered his services to one of the nation’s leading textbook publishers and was assigned to prepare a book that six-year olds could read themselves. Unfortunately, the situation soon got out of hand.

All I needed, I figured, was to find a whale of an exciting subject which would make the average six-year old want to read like crazy,” says Geisel. “None of the old dull stuff: Dick has a ball. Dick likes the ball. The ball is red, red, red, red.”

His first offer to the publisher was to do a book about scaling the peaks of Everest at sixty degrees below zero.

Truly exciting,” the publisher agreed. “However, you can’t use the word “scaling,’ you can’t use the word “peaks,’ you can’t use the word “Everest,’ you can’t use the word “sixty’ and you cant’ use the word “degrees.’

Geisel shortly found himself with a list of 348 words, most of them one-syllable words, which the average six-year old could recognize-and not a Yuzz-A-Ma-Tuzz or a Salamagoox among them. To one who was used to making up new words at will, it was a catastrophe. And yet the publisher had said, “Create a rollicking carefree story packed with action and tingling with suspense.”

Six months after accepting the assignment, Geisel was still staring at the word list, trying to find some words besides “ball” and “tall” that rhymed. The list had a “daddy,” but it didn’t have a “caddy.” It had a “thank,” but it had no “blank,” “frank” or “stank.” Page after page of scrawls was piled in his den. He had accumulated stories which moved along in fine style but got nowhere. One story about a King Cat and a Queen Cat was half finished before he realized that the word “queen” was not on the list.

One night, when he was almost ready to give up, there emerged from a jumble of sketches a raffish cat wearing a battered stovepipe hat. Geisel checked his list-both hat and cat were on it. Gradually he worked himself out of one literary dead end after another until he had completed his children’s reader.

The Cat in the Hat was published last spring by Houghton Mifflin as a supplementary school text for first graders, and in a popular edition by Random House. It already has been greeted enthusiastically by parents and educators. The story line concerns fanciful adventures occurring when a vagrant cat drops in to play with two small children while their mother is out. The verse, composed from only 200 different basic words, has a delightful meter and builds repetitions through devices such as the cat adding object after object to a juggling act. And the drawings, of course, are pure Seuss.

Although the principal character of The Cat in the Hat turns out to be all right in the end, he is not quite in keeping with most Seuss animals, which are usually gentle, loving and true blue. “Ted’s animals are the sort you’d like to take home to meet the family,” says [Geisel’s wife] Helen. “They have their own world and their own problems and the seem very logical to me.”

Cat in the Hat and Beginner Books

The following excerpt from Chapter 1, Childrens Picturebook Price Guide (Flying Moose Books, 2006):

Successful before the publication of the The Cat In The Hat, after it’s publication, Dr. Seuss became an “overnight’ national phenomenon. After the publication of The Cat In The Hat, numerous feature articles were published in Life, Look and other prominent periodicals. The book’s characters, along with other Seuss creations, were extended into toys and other products, occurring long before co-merchandising and line extensions became commonplace for children’s character marketing.

The Cat In The Hat was published by Random House. However because of it’s success, an independent publishing company was formed, called Beginner Books. Geisel was the president and editor. Beginner Books was chartered as a series of books oriented toward various stages of early reading development. The second book in the series was nearly as popular, The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, published in 1958.

Springing from this series of beginning readers were such standards as A Fly Went By (1958), Sam and the Firefly (1958), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Go, Dog. Go! (1961), Hop On Pop (1963), and Fox in Socks (1965), each a monument in the picturebook industry, and also significant in the historical development of early readers. All are still in print and remain very popular over forty years after their initial publication12.

Creators in the Beginner Book series were such luminaries as Jan & Stan Berenstain, P. D. Eastman, Roy McKie, and Helen Palmer (Mr. Geisel’s wife). The Beginner Books dominated the children’s picturebook market of the 1960’s, and still plays a significant role today within the phases of students’ reading development.

Click for first edition points, with photographs, for The Cat In The Hat.]

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