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Fifty Years of 'The Cat in the Hat'

The Cat in the Hat, the book about a mischievous, irrepressible soul who always seemed kind of ageless, is 50 years old. At the time of its debut in 1957, the Cat was an instant success. The Dr. Seuss classic is still captivating to children and the adults who read to them.

It has everything a classic needs — a great plot, great characters, wonderful illustrations and a unique voice, says Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children.

"Some books we read and we forget them right away," she says. "But there are those other books, that they just stay with us. And The Cat in the Hat is that kind of book."

And that means if you grew up reading The Cat in the Hat, there's a pretty good chance your children will read it, too.

On a cold, snowy, winter afternoon, Sonya Cohen curled up on a living room couch to listen to her children, 9-year-old Dio and 6-year-old Gabel read from one of her favorite childhood books.

Cohen began reading the book to her children while they were much younger. Dio, now a proficient reader, says she can remember sounding out the words to The Cat in the Hat when she was first learning to read .

"I liked the rhythm and the choice of words because they were not too easy and not too hard," she says.

In fact, the words to The Cat in the Hat were drawn from a vocabulary list for 6- and 7-year-olds. The list was given to Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss, by William Spaulding, then the director of Houghton Mifflin's educational division.

According to Philip Nel, author of The Annotated Cat, Spaulding had seen a 1954 Life magazine article by the writer John Hersey. In that article, Hersey took on a problem that was bothering Americans at the time: Why Johnny can't read. Hersey concluded that the "Dick and Jane" readers that most schools used were just too boring. Hersey suggested that Dr. Seuss write a new reading primer for the nation's schoolchildren.

Nel says that Spaulding liked that idea and issued a challenge to Dr. Seuss.

"He said, 'Write me a story that first-graders can't put down.' And so Seuss did and he wrote The Cat in the Hat to replace Dick and Jane. And it was a huge hit. It was a huge commercial success from the moment of its publication. It really is the book that made Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss," Nel says.

Dr. Seuss had been a fairly successful children's book author up until then, though he was not yet a household name. He thought it would be easy to write the book Spaulding wanted, and expected to dash it off in no time. It took him a year and a half. Seuss underestimated how hard it would be to write a book using just over 200 words, Nel says.

"Seuss was used to inventing words when he needed them, so to stick to a word list was a huge challenge for him," Nel says. "And, in fact, his favorite story about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is that it was born out of his frustration with the word list. He said he would come up with an idea, but then he would have no way to express that idea. So he said...: 'I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said I'll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book. I found cat and hat and I said the title will be The Cat in the Hat.'"

In the end, Nel says, Seuss used exactly 236 words to write The Cat in the Hat, words that young readers can understand.

But if the words are important, so too are the characters and situations that Seuss created: An outrageous cat and two strange things creating havoc on a rainy day. And perhaps the most controversial character: the scolding goldfish who warns of dire consequences.

The secret to Dr. Seuss' success may be his ability to zero in on what kids like and, Nel says, his ability to create a character like the cat who embodies that.

"He breaks the rules and gets away with it. He's a lot of fun. He creates chaos and creates excitement, and relieves the boredom of a rainy day. And in the end, everything's cleaned up, mother comes home and is none the wiser."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.