Not that one ever really needs a reason to look at pictures of cats, but with our Cats on the Page exhibition now open here at the Library, it seemed like as good a time as ever to explore some favourite literary felines. Please prowl forward: Dr. Seussâs âCat in the HatââŠ
Theodor Seuss Geiselâs (thatâs Massachusetts-born Dr. Seuss to you and me) bolshie yet lovable Cat, was the result of a challenge put to the author to write a childrenâs book using a vocabulary of no more than 225 words. Giving Seuss a list of words, William Spaulding, director of the education division at publisher Houghton Mifflin, threw the gauntlet (or at least the childrenâs-book-world-equivalent):
âWrite me a story that first-graders canât put down!â (Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, New York: Random House 1995, p 154, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813)
And accept that challenge Seuss did.
A quick recap for those who donât know: two children are left home alone one rainy day. Peering through the window and pondering what theyâre to do while Mother is out, Catâs arrival is signalled with a âBUMP!â. Ignoring the warnings of their pet fish (who, letâs face it, was probably never going to be a fan of a cat in the house even if he were as inconspicuous as they come), the children let Cat stay and chaos ensues. Elaborate balancing acts fail and a box of kite-flying Things cause disarray while the omniscient fish looks on despairingly.
The title itself came at a point of desperation for Seuss:
âI was desperate, so I decided to read [the list] once more. The first two words that rhymed would be the title of my book and Iâd go from there. I found âcatâ and then I found âhatâ.â (Theodor Seuss Geisel, author interview as quoted by Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 154)
It was through the sketching of Cat that things began to fall into place for the storyteller. Catâs upright posture, slightly protruding tum, trademark headwear and âred bow tie tied in three impossible loopsâ (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155) are instantly recognisable today. And hands up who else had never noticed that little quirk with the bowtie?
With Cat, itâs been said that Dr. Seuss wanted to create a character that, although was crafty and (slightly) shambolic, was still himself surprised whenever he messed up (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155). Itâs this that gives Cat his endearing charm and keeps readers revisiting his capers.
And like all regretful moggies who come back with their tail between their legs, he does make good in the end â pootling in to speedily execute a ânothing-to-see-hereâ clear up as Mother strolls along the garden path back to the house. Between the appealing rhythm and rhyme young readers are left with that very sagacious takeaway; you may mess up, but you can put things right again. Now thereâs some wisdom to bring with you into adulthood. Thanks, Cat.
Speaking of that compelling rhythm that flows through the pages of Cat in the Hat, the skill in Seussâs wordplay is made all-the-more impressive when you observe the lack of adjectives in the poem, something that Spaulding didnât provide in great abundance when he gave Seuss the list of words to work from. ââŠ[T]he limited vocabulary posed excruciating complexities in rhymingâ Morgan explains (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p155) but Seussâs ability prevailed, leaving us with that unique bounce of page-turning words that continues to entertain over half a century since they were first penned.
Within the first three years of its publication the tale had sold close to one million copies, been translated into other languages, and been produced in Braille (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 156). Over 60 years later it remains a staple on the bookshelves of young children (and big kids) around the world.
Not one to be put off by a slightly tricky experiment, Seussâs proficiency was pushed even further when it was later put to him to create another childrenâs book using a vocabulary of just 50- words. But weâll save Green Eggs and Ham for another time.
See a bold full-colour 1957 edition Cat in the Hat, complete with Seussâs iconic illustrations at Cats on the Page. Our free Entrance Hall exhibition celebrating cats and their capers from rhymes and stories through history is open until 17 March 2019.
(Blog by Rachael Williams, currently on an Americas team curatorial placement and feeling rather pleased at managing to sidestep the plethora of puns that could have weaved their way into a cat-related post.)
Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan, New York: Random House 1995, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813
Of Sneetches and Whos and the good Dr. Seuss: essays on the writings and life of Theodor Geisel, edited by Thomas Fensch, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Co c. 1997, British Library shelfmark YC.1998.b.617
The political philosophy behind Dr. Seuss's cartoons and poetry: decoding the adult meaning of a children's text, Earnest N. Bracey, Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 2015, British Library shelfmark YC.2017.a.5301