Thursday 7 February 2013

How the Cat in the Hat was Born

Author John Hersey wrote an article for Life magazine on May 24, 1954 titled "Why Do Students Bog Down on the First R?:  Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem".  Author of several books, including A Bell for Adano, Hersey criticized early school readers, explaining:

In the classroom boys and girls are confronted with six 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.

Why should [school primers] not have pictures that widen rather than narrow the associative richness the children give to thte words they illustrate -- drawings like those of the wonderuflly imaginative geniuses among children's illustrators, Tenniel, Howard Pyle, "Seuss", Walt Disney? (Wikipedia)

Image courtesy

William Spaulding, the educational director at Houghton Mifflin, read the John Hersey article.  In response, he asked a young Theodor Geisel to:  "Write me a book that first graders can't put down!"  Geisel, who had just recently had his first manuscript published, And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was eager to take up the challenge.

Mr. Spaulding gave the picture book writer a first grade vocabulary list of 348 words and asked him to write a story.  Mr. Geisel agonized over how to start the book but then looked for the first two words on the list that rhymed:  cat, hat.  Over the next nine months, he penned the book, trying to use as many words from the vocabulary list as possible.  The finished product was 1629 words in length, of which 223 words came from the original list, plus an additional 13 words not from the list.  Most of the words were monosyllabic while 14 had two syllables and only one had three.  The result was a book that, unlike Dick and Jane, was highly entertaining; indeed, children could not put it down.  Kids loved the big cat who made a big mess while Sally and her brother watched and the bug-eyed Fish in the Dish had a fit.  

The Cat in the Hat inspired a sequel, The Cat in the Hat Came Back.  The cat is also featured in The Cat's Quizzer, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut and Daisy-Head Mayzie.

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