Thursday, March 2, 2017

60 years of the Cat In the Hat

Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss.  This month is also the 60th anniversary of Dr. Seuss's seminal classic The Cat In the Hat. 

Although it is now a classic, when it came out, it was considered too silly to be a good book for learning how to read, and was teaching bad behavior to children. After all, the cat is a trouble maker.

The Cat In the Hat was written in response to the Dick and Jane books, which were de riguer in educational circles but were considered to be boring.  In fact, in the Dick and Jane books, Sally is the younger sister, but in The Cat In the Hat, Sally is the main character!

Fascinating book about the evolution
of The Cat In The Hat
Educationally, Dick and Jane books were using a "look say" philosophy to teach reading.  You see a picture, you see a word with that picture, and through repetition, you associate that picture with the word.  This had been the dominant method of learning in the US, but it turned out that American children were reading at levels below their counterparts in Europe.  Educators argued that children weren't learning to recognize the patterns in words, and wanted children to use a new fangled method called phonics, where kids learned how to pronounce words that rhyme and follow a similar pattern.

Suess was asked to write a reading primer that used the common 225 words that children would be interested in reading.  The first two words on the list that rhymed were Cat and Hat. The book ended up using 236 common words.  He thought it would take a couple of weeks, but it took him over a year.  He originally wanted to write a book about a King Cat and a Queen cat, but it turned out queen was not part of the common word list.  Seuss once described the process of writing the Cat In The Hat as "being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love."

The book was not popular initially with educators, but the book was VERY popular with parents.  By the early 70's when I was learning to read, the Phonics method was just becoming popular.  My reading class experimented with it, and that's how I learned to read.

There's a fascinating book called The Annotated Cat that has some of the original drafts that Seuss wrote, along with a line by line annotation that shows the struggles that Dr. Suess had in making this such an amazing book.

There are also two great articles that go over this history well:

On a side note, I also want to point out Dr. Seuss's hilarious and non-phonic book The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs The Dough, in which 4 words that end with ough  are pronounced 4 different ways.  The book features the early (and mostly adult-oriented) drawings and cartoons of Dr. Seuss.  I highly recommend it.

So Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss! And Happy 60 years of Cat in the Hat!

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