Children’s taste in media changes every generation. What used to entertain and be appropriate for the previous generation doesn’t always work with the present or future generations of kids. While authors are constantly striving to find out what books will get kids excited to read, one author seemingly cracked the code over fifty years ago.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has consistently been one of the most popular children’s authors since the 1950’s, with his unique books being republished and reinterpreted to this very day. His strikingly silly illustrations, the endlessly fun rhyming, and the universal messages of his stories still resonate with kids.
Before Seuss became a household name, his first created household marketing campaigns. Working with FLIT insecticide, Ford Motor Company, and NBC Radio, Seuss created illustrations and highly successful marketing campaigns in the 20’s and 30’s. During WWII, he first drew political cartoons, and eventually worked with the U.S. Government creating propaganda posters. He even directed and wrote documentaries for the U.S, one of which, Design for Death, won the Academy Award for best documentary.
After the war, Seuss began to dedicate more of his time to writing children’s books, which became fairly successful. While he had published many popular books, such as And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and Horton Hears a Who, Seuss was not yet the household name that he is today.
That would all begin to change in 1954. Life magazine published an article written by John Hersey titled “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading." In the article, Hersey criticizes the educational books written for children, claiming that the stories of “Jack and Jill” do not appeal to kids. The stories and writing were boring, and the characters were unrelatable.
Near the end of the article, Hersey directly calls out popular children's authors of the time: “Why should [school primers] not have pictures that widen rather than narrow the associative richness the children give to the words they illustrate—drawings like those of the wonderfully imaginative geniuses among children's illustrators, Tenniel, Howard Pyle, ‘Dr. Seuss’, Walt Disney?”
Hersey’s article reflected the ideas of another book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read. Author Rudolf Flesch included 72 lists of words the average child should know in the back of the book. William Spalding, the then head of Houghton Mifflin's educational division, saw both Hersey’s article and Flesch’s book, and got an idea. He met with Seuss for dinner and posed him a challenge: write a book for children that will keep the engaged and entertained, while also using between 200 and 250 words from a list of words every six to seven-year-old should know.
Dr. Seuss has recounted the creation of this story in various articles and interviews, but it’s difficult to tell which ones are true and which are made up, as the story changes.
Seuss originally thought this would be an easy project, something he could write in a couple of weeks. It took him a year in a half to write what would become The Cat in the Hat. Seuss struggled with the word limit, coming up with various story ideas before realizing the premise itself was not a featured word.
According to Philip Nel, an expert and biographer of Gisel, Seuss was used to coming up with own words, or at least having a wider selection of words to rhyme with. The limitation provided by the list forced Seuss to be even more creative, and his perfectionist tendencies fully took hold while writing.
One of the more common stories is that Seuss originally came up with a story about two king and queen cats. After working on the idea for three weeks, he was reminded that there were no “q” words on the list. He also discovered that his first grade nephew did not know the word “queen”.
In a bout of frustration, Seuss decided to look through the list again and pick two words that rhymed. Through this practice, he came across “cat” and “hat”.
Seuss then spent the next year and a half crafting the children's book, editing and refining it countless times. He was worried his work wouldn't be good enough, not only to fulfill the challenge, but also to be appealing and engaging to young readers. This doubt only encourage him more.
By the time The Cat in the Hat was published in March, 1957, Seuss had completed the book using 236 of the selected words. Despite his initial doubts, Seuss seemed confident about the public release of this book.
“ We've got a possibility of making a tremendous noise in the noisy discussion of Why Johnny Can't Read. The Random House trade edition won't come out until later, and the big noise may never come off.”
Seuss was right to be so brazen about this book’s success. In 1957, The Cat in the Hat sold on average every month 12,000 copies, and that number only increased throughout the decade, until by 1960 it had sold one million copies.
Nel Morgan attributes this success to the boomer generation, who at the time were just starting to learn to read. They led The Cat in the Hat to success through “playground word-of-mouth,” which led to them asking their parents for their own copies.
Seuss’ book also received critical acclaim upon release, garnering positive reviews from The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The New Yorker. The book was praised for how it created an exciting narrative for children, while also being fun for parents to read with their kids.
After the success of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss became the face of a growing literacy debate in America. His book was used as the main argument to get rid of textbooks for children and replace them with picture books and phonetic learning.
Seuss’ book also lead to the creation of Beginner Books, a line of children’s books published by Random House that are designed to help children between six and nine learn how to read. Seuss himself contributed to the label with classics like Green Eggs and Ham, and books are still published with under the Beginner Books banner to this day.
For these reasons, and many more, Dr. Seuss quickly became a household name, writing many more popular illustrated children’s books. Many of his works have been turned into timeless t.v. specials like How The Grinch Stole Christmas, or into highly successful movies, like Horton Hears a Who! (2007). Netflix even recently released a highly praised animated series based off Seuss story Green Eggs and Ham, showing how prevalent Seuss’ work is over fifty years after his first gained notoriety.
What made Seuss stand out from other children’s writers at the time is emblematic of what made The Cat in the Hat work with children: he wrote for children, but never talked down to them. The Cat may be a silly story, but it also reveals in the fun antics kids love to get into. For parents, it calls back to their own childhoods, while giving them a new perspective on how to teach their kids how to read or various morals.
Dr. Seuss’ work continues to entertain and educate children around the world, showing how important it is to not only learn, but to have fun while doing it.