This post may turn out to be a bit of a rant. You may have already surmised this from the title, but I just mention it to bring it out in the open.
The Cat in the Hat is to American children’s literature what Sherlock Holmes is to detective fiction. The Cat is ubiquitous, highly regarded, used as a standard for learning to read, almost if not actually one of the definitive works of American children’s literature.
And I can’t stand it.
Dr. Seuss’ books are a lot less common in the UK, so I wasn’t subjected to an endless diet of the stuff, but I do remember reading The Cat in the Hat once as a child. In a doctor’s waiting room, if I recall correctly.
As I remember, it scared me deeply and I never wanted to read another one, or anything else by this strange Dr Seuss.
Now all Americans are looking at me as if I’ve just announced that the Emperor has no clothes. How can The Cat in the Hat possibly be considered scary??
Bear with me; today’s topic is an exploration of how.
Looked at through one set of eyes, in his day Dr. Seuss’ achievement is difficult to overstate. For perhaps the first time, here was a book made up entirely of short, easy words of the sort beginner readers can easily sound out. It was something a new reader could read by themselves, and the neverending print run of the things suggests that it was something kids of that sort of age wanted to read by themselves.
And yet I found it scary.
Chief among the things that distressed me was the Cat’s confident and sinister whisper of “your mother will not mind at all if you do”.
Even as a small child I knew that any stranger making this sort of blithe assertion about what my mother “would not mind at all” in her absence was to be feared and run away from. We drum it into our kids not to accept sweets from strangers, not to go up to a stranger’s car, not to trust strangers. And then we read them The Cat in the Hat?
Worse, the Cat marched into their home as if he owned it, and wouldn’t leave until he’d done what he came for. This is scary stuff. An Englishman’s home is his castle; you do not get to come into my house as if you own it and stay as long as you please.
Particularly not if you’re bringing the sort of chaos that the Cat has trailing in his wake. Ridiculous balancing acts involving live goldfish, the dreadful and unnatural Things 1 and 2, unicycles, umbrellas and I forget what else. Really, this is scary clown stuff. And Americans read this to their kids?
Some other things are personal nuances that probably don’t affect other people. Like the way Dr. Seuss’ drawings of quadrupeds move, both feet on one side of the body coming forward together. This is unnatural and makes me cringe every time I see it. Literally cringe. I almost cannot bear to look at it.
It’s a strong enough reaction as to be almost phobic in nature, and I’ll freely admit that I don’t expect anyone else to share it. There it is. I’m phobic about Dr. Seuss drawings.
It’s not just Dr. Seuss, either. My kids watch a TV show called Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse which has the same unnatural motion, and I cannot stand to be in the same room as the TV when it’s on.
I suppose it could be that my near-phobic reaction to Seussian art coloured my perception of the book, but as I recall, all the characters in The Cat in the Hat stand on two feet, not four. Even Fish, with no legs at all, acts like he’s standing on the two “feet” of his tail.
Fish, to my young mind, was The Voice of Conscience, telling those two kids what they should do, what their parents would want. And Cassandra-like, he’s doomed to be ignored. When I first read the book, it was Fish I related to. All sorts of scary chaos was happening. I could see it happening. And I was powerless to stop it. It’s little wonder the book scared me! From Fish’s point of view it’s terrifying!
I kept on thinking about how much trouble those fool kids were going to be in when their mother finally got home and that sinister Cat finally got his comeuppance. The Cat cleaning everything up and restoring everything in the space of a single page at the end was almost a disappointment.
What? I thought. He gets to cause all that chaos and mess and trouble and then just magic everything back to normal and walk away scot-free? No! Give me justice! The Cat must answer for his crimes!
Even as a kid I knew that it wasn’t as easy as the Cat had it. Messes of that nature don’t clean up that easily, and to me, the fact that he didn’t stay around to meet the kids’ mother coming home was further proof that this Cat in the Hat was a Very Bad Person. If he’s a good guy, if he’s actually right that “their mother will not mind at all”, why does he skedaddle like the proverbial bat out of hell as soon as the mother’s footfalls are drawing near? Good people don’t behave like that. But the Cat does.
So it baffles me that parents treat this monstrous home invasion by a sinister clown as fit reading material for their young children. More, it baffles me that American kids apparently seem to love this anarchic spree, and happily read it without being in the least bit scared by it all. Bewildering.
I have to admit that we do have some Dr. Seuss books in the house. It’s virtually impossible to have kids in America and entirely avoid the literary empire of Seussdom. And I don’t find the current TV incarnation to be quite so objectionable. Annoying, yes, but not scary. But while I’ll tolerate Green Eggs and Ham, I will not have that Cat in my house.
We’re past that point now, I think, but I mention it because one of my daughters has been reading Pippi Longstocking. Not having any experience of this character, I read some of her book (“Pippi in the South Seas”). And it looks like exactly the same unleashing of anarchy and chaos on a slightly older-child level. Pippi is irritatingly garrulous, smug in her ignorance, and a teller of king-size whoppers. She appears to hate and oppose any and all adult authority, refuses to go to school or do anything she ought, and is apparently unstoppable due to her superhuman strength. More, the stories make no sense. Again, chaos is happening, and we are powerless to prevent it because we’re up against a girl who can lift a horse with one hand.
The anarchy of the Cat, it seems, casts a long shadow in my world.