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How The Cat in the Hat Saved Child Literacy

It is more than fifty years since The Cat in the Hat, written by Dr. Seuss, was released to the world in 1957. It has also been for more than fifty years that children (and adults) the world over have been delighted by, and enamoured with the entertaining linguistic gymnastics that make this the enjoyable and amusing story that it is. That this childhood literary treasure came into the world as a way to improve the poor state of literacy of American childhood makes the enduring success of this book even more profound.

In 1904, Theodor Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. At night, his mother, a baker (with the maiden name Seuss), would recite to him lists of pies she’d memorised by turning them into chants, and so introduced young Theodore to the rhythm and rhyme of language. Theodore began writing under the pseudonym “Seuss” (pronounce “zoice”, like “voice”) after he was kicked off his college newspaper as punishment for throwing an alcohol fuelled party. He continued to contribute under this alias. Later, in the spirit of fun, he added “Dr.” to his pseudonym, as his father had always wanted a doctor in the family but, alas, none had materialised.

Upon returning to America, after giving up university to, instead, travel Europe, Dr. Seuss established a successful career as an editorial and advertising illustrator and copywriter. He also wrote his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which was rejected by 27 publishers before being printed in 1937, and another 4 after that. Dr. Seuss’s legendary way with words began to be noticed.

In the mid-1950s, Life magazine ran an article about how children’s educational books were the real reason for the ever-dropping standard of literacy of American children. The journalist pointed out how boring educational books were, and that if entertaining author/illustrators like Dr. Seuss were added to the reading curriculum, the problem could well be averted. Dr. Seuss’s publishers responded to the article by asking him to write a children’s book – but, he was only allowed to use 250 words, chosen for their importance in children’s vocabularies, that had been carefully selected by literacy experts. The 1600 word The Cat in the Hat uses only 236 individual words.

Suddenly, children could practice their reading while also being entertained, and they fell in love with his imaginative and fun-filled tale of the mischievous cat. When Random House publisher Bennet Cerf bet Dr. Seuss that he couldn’t write a book using only a 50-word vocabulary, the equally popular Green Eggs and Ham proved him wrong. Dr. Seuss’s rhyming stories have since been turned into movies, games, and even amusement parks, and his books, ever popular are still as engaging as they ever were.

Emma Codd

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