by RANDAL HILL
“Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down,” challenged William Spaulding, a director at Houghton Mifflin Publishers one day in 1955. Spaulding then handed children’s author Theodor Geisel a list of vocabulary words for six- and seven-year-olds.
For years, Geisel had written—with limited success—under the name Dr. Seuss.
(Seuss was his mother’s maiden name.) Geisel scanned the list and decided that
creating and illustrating such a book should be easy. “I figured I could knock it off
in a week or so,” he admitted later. “It took a year and a half.” Geisel had underestimated just how hard it would be to write a truly compelling children’s tale in a mere 200 words.
Determined to outdo (what he considered) boring Dick and Jane reading books,
he chose to write a fun-to-read story predicated on the first two rhyming words that
appeared on his list.
They happened to be cat and hat.
One rainy day, an outrageous anthromorphic feline in an impossibly tall, striped hat
visits two housebound youngsters: a girl called Sally and her unnamed brother, who
narrates the story.
The cat sets about performing a bizarre trick that includes balancing sundry household items (including the family goldfish) while balancing himself precariously upon a
huge ball. To nobody’s surprise, the cat and everything else crash to the floor in a heap. Undaunted, he hauls in a box containing two wild-haired, impish creatures called
Thing One and Thing Two. They proceed to run amok throughout the house, flying kites and scattering things everywhere.
The children and the fish panic when they realize that Mother will be returning soon. But the irrepressible invader calmly removes both Things, then zips about the house in a machine that quickly tidies up everything. By the time Mother breezes
in, the cat has slipped out, the house is back in order, and Mother is none the wiser.
Published in March 1957 and composed mostly of one-syllable words, The Cat in
the Hat sold 1 million copies by the end of the decade and made Dr. Seuss a household name. His classic has now sold over 10 million copies worldwide and has been
translated into several languages, including Latin (under the title Cattus Petasatus).
“I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries,” Geisel
later proclaimed. “That is my greatest satisfaction.”
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.