“I know it is wet,
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!”
One of the treasures of children’s literature is Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in The Hat. His slightly off kilter, child-like use of language is one of the many things that makes it so attractive to young readers. These lines are typical - short and snappy, repetitive and rhyming, which make them fun to read, and easy to remember for the next time.
The plot is carried along in cascades of seemingly effortless verse, telling the tale of what happens when a mischievous, anthromorphic cat comes to visit Sally and her brother one rainy day, when they are home alone and bored, bored, bored. The story of the Cat in the Hat has been dramatised many times since the early 1970s, and it is easy to forget that its initial purpose was as a reading primer for young children, a more engaging replacement for “Dick and Jane” (or if you lived in Ireland, Ann and Barry and their dog, Bran).
We are now in the age of Jolly Phonics, where the initial sounds that children learn are S,I,T rather than A, B, C, but the fundamentals are the same. Once they learn the names and sounds of letters, how some of them can be sounded out and blended, and how others must be recognised as “sight words”, their first reading books are usually some combination of the two. The language used in The Cat in the Hat also uses this method of sounding out, word recognition and repetition - and there are only 236 repeated words in the whole book. However, it marked a departure from traditional primers that prioritised description, like “the cat sat on the mat” over storyline. In other words, it’s a proper book! This cat is not just sat on the mat, he is the most attention-seeking character you can imagine, who brings Sally and her brother, their fish and the contents of their house from order to chaos and back again, all before their mother gets home.
In contrast to many early readers where adults are in charge, this unpredictable cat takes over the action and all hell breaks loose. “Look at me!” he repeatedly urges Sally and her brother, “Look at me now!” The atmosphere of the whole book is reminiscent of an unsupervised classroom where the class clown suddenly has everyone’s attention for a brief, unruly ten minutes of unsupervised messing. The cat, in his iconic tall striped hat arrives with a glint in his eye and immediately starts breaking all the kinds of rules that children are familiar with - he balances sharp and breakable and spillable objects! He totally ignores the objections of the family goldfish, who acts as the adult voice of authority. After the first game ends in disaster, he produces a box with two little accomplices, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who compound matters, racing around the house flying kites, knocking vases off tables and sweeping pictures off walls.
One of the children manages to catch one of the Things in a net, and gets rid of the Cat, but the house is in ruins. Now what? Just as everything is about to end in disaster, the Cat in the Hat saves the day by returning with a contraption that incorporates everything you might need to straighten out your house, what my five year old called “the cleaner upper” that gets everything spick and span just as the mother walks in the door.
Small steps towards independence are the building blocks of childhood development, and reading is one of the most fundamental, but independence in an end in itself for children. The Cat in the Hat ends on this note and gives the last word to its small readers, asking
“Should we tell her about it?
Now what SHOULD we do?
What would YOU do
If your mother asked you?”
If you love The Cat in the Hat, there are lots of other Dr Seuss delights that would be an asset to any growing library. Oh, the Places You’ll Go, The Lorax, Green Eggs and Ham, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas are a great start, and some of the issues raised in these - environmentalism, polarised political views, greed - are highly prescient to today’s world. The simplicity of Dr Seuss’s language belies the seriousness of some of the subject matter, and they appeal to children’s natural sense of fairness, and fun.
By Susannah Sweetman, writer and mum of 4.