The Cat in the Hat has been teaching us to read since 1957. Several generations of families now know the tale of the anarchic cat who pops round to liven up a dull and rainy afternoon.
Sally and her brother are glum. Until that is, sudden and unannounced, The Cat in the Hat steps in on the mat, promising ‘lots of good fun that is funny’. The charismatic cat’s idea of fun involves extreme forms of juggling and the hair-raising flying of kites in the house. Predictably, these high spirited shenanigans result in one almighty household mess. This bemuses the children but their pet goldfish is extremely unimpressed, and takes every opportunity to wag a disapproving fin. He really is a moralising bore, representing the reproachful voice of the absent mother. Then, the unthinkable happens. Mother is spotted, walking up the garden path. How will they tidy up before she arrives?
The Cat in the Hat changed the face of the rather staid early reading books, combining simple phonics with bold illustrations. Seuss kept the vocabulary small, no words above two syllables, believing that rhyme and repetition helps the young reader quickly recognise words. The magical ingredient is rhythm. In fact, there has to be an element of performance when reading this to a child. No monotone here please. I always think that the Seussian principle of free association with language is like a groovy literary version of free-form Jazz.
The subject matter thrills too. Parents away, time for play! In this case, domestic order upended by chaotic hilarity, although interestingly, the mother’s ultimate authority is never questioned. It’s a safe form of rebellion. Dr Seuss described the story as a revolt against authority, and himself as ‘subversive as hell…’
Joyful, anarchic, and educational too. 60 years of Seussian genius.
The Cat in the Hat is published by Harper Collins Children, 64 pages.