During the time when Dr. Seuss (real name: Theodor Geisel) was working as a children's book author and illustrator, a popular primer for young children involved the story of two characters name Dick and Jane. The problem: Dick and Jane were boring, and educators and parents knew it. Consequently, these boring characters impeded children from learning how to read and advance their skill level. Writer John Hershey delineated the problem in a 1954 article in Life magazine:
"In the classroom boys and girls are confronted with books that have insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children... All feature abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls... In bookstores anyone can buy brighter, livelier books featuring strange and wonderful animals and children who behave naturally, i.e., sometimes misbehave... Given incentive from school boards, publishers could do as well with primers."
Hershey added: "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?"
Upon reading the article, William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin's education division, decided to take Hershey's idea to the next level. He invited Dr. Seuss over for dinner and asked him to create an exciting children's book that would encourage them to read. "Write me a story that first-graders can't put down!" he repeatedly exclaimed to Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss thought, no sweat. But in fact, he did sweat — for a year and a half. Accustomed to inventing words at his leisure in his previous books, the imaginative author underestimated how difficult it would be to limit his vocabulary to around 200 words, give or take. In the end, he managed to keep his masterpiece, The Cat in the Hat, to 236 words.
But conceiving the story was hard for Dr. Seuss. With the word list being so limited, he finally — out of frustration — chose the first two words he could find that rhymed and decided to create a story around them. Cat and hat is what he found.
Dr. Seuss imagined his now famous story like so: Two kids are stuck at home alone on a rainy day. An anthropomorphized cat appears with two strange companions at their door and wreak havoc, while the kids' goldfish warns them of these bad characters. In the end, the cat uses a machine to clean up his chaotic mess, all before mom gets home.
Upon publication in 1957, The Cat in the Hat was an instant hit and made Dr. Seuss a world-renowned children's book author. It also led to the creation of Beginner Books, a publishing house that produced books similar to The Cat in the Hat to help children learn how to read.
Reflecting on the book's success, Dr. Seuss said this in 1983: "It is the book I'm proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers." He also admitted that same year that he wrote the story with a political message in mind. “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kernesky and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.” As for the doomsdayer fish, Dr. Seuss said he used Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan minister during the Salem witch trials, as a source of inspiration.
From the Biography archives: This article was originally published on March 9, 2017.