Friday, 21 March 2008

The Cat in the Hat

The Complete Cat in the Hat 50th Birthday Edition, Dr Seuss, HarperCollins, 123 pages, hardback, NZ $19.99 ISBN 0-00-724788-5
Te Potu Ro Potae Dr Seuss, HarperCollins, 61 pages, paperback, NZ $14.99
ISBN 1-86950-525-5
The Cat in the Hat Pops Up!: a pull-the-tab pop-up surprise book, Dr Seuss, HarperCollins, 11 board pages, NZ $12.99
ISBN 978-0-00-724792-9

The statue is remarkable. A bearded man, with a genial expression studies an illustration on his drawing desk. This is the National Memorial to Theodor ‘Ted’ Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts. Who is he? The sculptures of oddly shaped animals that surround him explain everything. Children run among them, crying out joyfully as they recognise old friends: Yertle the Turtle, the Grinch, Horton the Elephant, the Lorax and Sam I Am with his Green Eggs and Ham!

Behind the statue, a paw draped affectionately on Geisel’s shoulder, stands a giant cat, wearing a bow tie and a very large hat. As Dr Seuss, ‘Ted’ Geisel achieved world fame, writing and drawing his beloved children’s books, from The Sneetches to One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Dr Seuss was 87 when he died in 1991. The Cat in the Hat is 50 this year but will live on for ever.

The Complete Cat in the Hat, published as a special 50th birthday edition on 1st March, contains full text and pictures of The Cat in the Hat (1957) and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958). Visitors from Mars will be interested to learn that in them two children are visited by a flamboyantly mischievous cat. The button-nosed feline juggles almost every breakable item in the house then drops everything. His assistants, Thing One and Thing Two, fly kites indoors, knock over furniture and leave the house in a mess. With split-second timing the cat then uses a Seuss-ian tidying machine to restore order, just before Mother returns.
In the sequel, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the feline home invader again poses as a benign ringmaster, while encouraging chaos. Sally and her brother are helpless to stop the spread of the pink stains created when the cat eats cake in the bath. Soon clothes, walls, rugs and even the snow outside are all pink. Only 26 tiny cats, A to Z, concealed inside the cat’s hat, are able to clear the mess up. Again disaster is narrowly averted.

Why is The Cat in the Hat so popular? The first book sold a million copies in only three years. Some credit the simple language; Dr Seuss used a vocabulary of only 225 words from the Dolch basic vocabulary list. The Cat in the Hat is the first controlled vocabulary picture book, designed for children to read to themselves, rather than have it read to them. More important, however, was Dr Seuss’s trademark whacky humour and his “riotous rhyme and rollicking rhythm.” This vital ingredient meant that children wanted to read the books.

Every parent knows another reason for the cat’s popularity. The idea of a naughty invisible friend who carries out all the mischief that you might be blamed for is familiar to anyone who has spent time with a four-year old.

And then there are the illustrations. Ted Giesel began as a cartoonist. His splendidly simple lines and complicated gadgets, his distorted but strangely familiar caricatures of odd creatures and even odder humans, make his work instantly recognisable. With their bold, simple colouring, Dr Seuss’s pictures have become classic images, as fresh now as they were in 1957.

No credit is given for Te Poti Ro Potae, HarperCollin’s 2007 Maori language edition, (although in 1983 Collins NZ published a Maori-English parallel text, Te Poti mau Potae, translated by the late Hirini Melbourne). Whoever translated it has retained Dr Seuss’s vigour. “Bump! Thump! Thump! Bump! Down the wall in the hall” is rendered as “Pako! Tuki! Tuki! Pako! Hei te pakitara korokoro.”

The Cat in the Hat Pops Up!, described as a pull-the-tab pop-up surprise book, isn’t surprising and won’t pop up. The single cat picture with a tab is so stiff that it can only be dragged-up by a very strong parent. Offering toddlers a cat-in-the-hat book with NO cat was a no-brainer in the first place. Leave this one for the remainder bin.

There are over forty other Dr Seuss titles to enjoy. Perhaps the greatest tribute to their lasting effect comes in the Peanuts comic strip. When asked to name his family physician, Linus replies, “Dr Seuss?”

Trevor Agnew

This review appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on March 3rd 2007.

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