- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
“Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down.”
This was the challenge that William Spaulding, a director at Houghton Mifflin Publishers, offered to Theodor Geisel one day in 1955 as he handed Geisel a list of vocabulary words for 6- and 7-year-olds.
At the time, Geisel was a little-known children’s author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss. (Seuss was his mother’s maiden name.) His fortunes — and his life — would change forever when he accepted Spaulding’s unconventional assignment.
Geisel had scanned the list and decided that creating and illustrating such a book should be quite 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 that utilized a mere 200 words.
Determined to outdo the ubiquitous — and boring — Dick and Jane books found throughout American elementary schools, Geisel decided 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.
Seuss’s clever creation tells of an outrageous anthropomorphic feline who wears an impossibly tall striped hat. One rainy day, this odd intruder drops by to relieve the boredom of two housebound youngsters, a girl called Sally and her unnamed brother, who narrates the story.
The cheerful cat sets about performing a bizarre trick that involves balancing plates, books, a cake, toys, a milk bottle, and even the family goldfish, all the while balancing himself precariously upon a huge ball. To nobody’s surprise, the cat and all his accoutrements crash to the floor in a heap.
Undaunted, he then hauls in a huge box that contains 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.
When the children and the fish realize that Mother will be coming home soon, panic sets in. That’s when the irrepressible invader removes both Things, then zips about the house in an ingenuous machine that quickly tidies up everything.
By the time Mother returns, 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 decade’s end and, in the process, made Dr. Seuss a household name.
Geisel later proclaimed, “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries. That is my greatest satisfaction.”
His delightful classic has now sold over 10 million books, and The Cat in the Hat has lived on through a 1971 animated TV special and a live-action 2003 film. But when the movie was panned for its adult humor and innuendo, Geisel’s widow, Audrey, disallowed any future films based on her husband’s works.
Theodor Geisel was childless by choice, but he always enjoyed telling others, “You have ’em, I’ll entertain ’em.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.