Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Cat That Killed Dick and Jane

I have this mind picture of Dr. Seuss left over from my childhood. Maybe you do, too. That picture is based on no kind of reality; just a cartoon cut-out of a friendly guy created, I guess, by the happy shape the letters that formed his name made on the cover of his books.

To me, Dr. Seuss looked very similar to the way I imagined Santa Claus; though thinner, of course. And he looked not much different from the way I pictured God: Friendly, ultimately benevolent though somewhat obsessed with the concept of right and wrong.

Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2nd, 1904. Like his work, even the honorific was fiction: perhaps a nod to the doctorate in literature he intended to get -- but didn’t -- at Oxford in the 1920s.

The “Seuss,” of course, he came by honestly: it was his mother’s maiden name. Most of us have spent a lot of our lives mispronouncing it, however. While the popular pronunciation has the name rhyming with “Zeus,” the good doctor himself was quoted several times explaining that his name was “Seuss -- rhymes with voice.” (Though I can’t imagine we’re all going to stop with the mispronunciation now.)

While The Cat In Hat turns 50 in March, in some ways it celebrates so much more than an anniversary. Though Seuss wrote 48 books for children, The Cat In the Hat remains one of the most popular. In 2000, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the bestselling children’s books of all time. Green Eggs and Ham (1960) was number four, while The Cat In the Hat was not far behind at number nine. It’s actually an amazing list: 24 of Seuss’ books were in the top 140.

In 2002, Louis Menand took a brilliant look at The Cat In the Hat for The New Yorker:
Every reader of "The Cat in the Hat" will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to some more insidious intruder.
Among other things -- and, truly, he leaves no stone here unturned -- Menand shares Seuss’ design brief for the book. In a nutshell, at a time when America was concerned that many children were slipping through school without being able to read, author and educator Rudolf Franz Flesch made a strong case for children learning to read with the help of phonics, rather than the rote of Dick and Jane.

Flesch included word lists in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long,” writes Menand, “but it uses only 220 different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.”

The Cat In the Hat was published in March of 1957. Within weeks it was selling 12,000 copies a month. By 1960, the book had sold a million copies. However, if you have a first edition, Children’s Picture Book Price Guide tells us it’s worth $4000. However, to the millions of kids who learned to read with a copy of The Cat In the Hat pressed to their noses, the book is beyond price.

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