Fifty Nifty Years: The Cat in the Hat

(Published in the Business Standard, April 2nd, 2007)


How is that The Cat in the Hat is not out in the cold,

though it’s fifty years old?

It’s been translated into Yiddish

for the benefit of some kiddish,

and you can read it in Spanish

and see that goldfish vanish.

At the Latin high table,

it’s available

as Cattus Petasatus,

also known as the matus

to the same translator’s look

at another Dr Seuss book.

(He did Green Eggs and Ham,

starring Seuss’s SamIAm,

as Virent Ova! Viret Perna!,

for the beginner Latin learner.)

Sadly, there’s no Sindhi

translation yet, nor Hindi,

though Indian children might well

fall under Seuss’ spell.

Theodore Geisel, who was the real voice

of the man whom we know as plain Dr Seuss,

began his career drawing cartoons for the adult,

but it was when he wrote for children that he spawned a new cult.

Geisel was a good listener; he listened a lot,

to the rhymes his mother made up about selling pies, hot

(Henrietta Seuss Geisel, an excellent baker,

was also a nifty verse-maker).

He listened to ships, and wrote a book to their beat,

the famous To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

But though by this time he was a well-liked shamus,

he was nothing close to being famous.

Then in 1954 John Hersey wrote to complain

about those boring books starring Dick and Jane.

Of course kids didn’t read, their books were too bland;

perhaps Disney (or Geisel?) should take this matter in hand?

Besides most authors used too many words without thinking;

children should be able to read pages without blinking.

Geisel’s publisher was a bright sort of chap

and after much thought he wrote a word map.

It didn’t have words by the yard, oh no;

after his work, he had only 400 words to show.

But these were the key words, the ones that would matter

to children used to listening to normal chat and patter.

“Dr Seuss,” he asked, “Do you think you could twist

a book out of the 400 words on this list?”

Dr Seuss figured he could do maybe even better;

he cut that list down, letter by letter.

Of those 400 words, he thought he could fix

a mighty fine story using just 236.

He took a year, with a map and a doodle,

until he thought he had his “stroodle-less stroodle”.

But he was stuck on one thing, and that was line one;

he couldn’t do the story until line one was done.

One day, by which time he knew his word-list pat,

he saw the first two words: “cat” and “hat”.

Would that cat be on a mat wearing a hat?

Or would it be a bat on a hat under a cat?

“I’ve got it!” he thought with much glee—

“A cat in the hat sounds good to me!”

His 236 words, used in different combinations,

were enough to please kids—and adults—of all nations.

Now that cat was no sweet little furball or placid old tabby;

when the cat in the hat came in, there’d be chaos and all the adults got crabby.

The cat, and his friends, Thing One and Thing Two,

were very good examples of what not to do.

They turned the house upside down and inside out;

they scared everyone, and made the goldfish shout.

But the kids loved it, bad-behaved cat or not;

in fact, they loved it, they loved it a lot.

cathat2 unclesam

Art Spiegelman, a cartoonist, had drawn the famous Maus,

so he knew something about cats in hats or in the house.

“This cat looks familiar, in fact—why damn,

if it isn’t a lot like the poster of Uncle Sam.”

It may or may not have been that,

but Uncle and Cat do have the same kind of hat.

As children bought books and clamoured for more,

Dr Seuss found publishers lining up at his door.

He wrote One Fish Two Fish, he wrote Hop on Pop:

Dr Seuss was the best, for always and ever on top.

He loved writing, but he was beginning to think—

was 236 words a waste of ink?

He settled on fifty,

which sounded pretty nifty.

That’s all he could cram into Green Eggs and Ham,

but we loved the words and the plot,

we loved Seuss a lot.

And that’s why fifty years on,

though Theodore Geisel’s gone,

children still rejoice

when you read them Dr Seuss.

“It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how”

—he knew, and thanks to him, we still have fun now.





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