Let's Hear It for Dr. Seuss

by Ellen Shapiro

As a creator of materials designed to help children learn to read, I’m a longtime champion of The Cat In The Hat as a beginning reader. It’s not only engaging and funny, it helps kids learn to read C-V-C words, three-letter words with a beginning consonant, a short vowel, and an ending consonant  like cat and hat, sit and bit, man and fan, bed and red.

When children understand that an alphabet letter is a symbol that represents a sound and begin to decode the basic building blocks of written language, they are on the way to “cracking the code,” that is, learning to read longer and more complex words, sentences and, soon, books. It’s exciting to see them grasp that when the initial consonant changes, the ‘at’ part stays the same. Aha! Suddenly, they can read a series of words including bat, fat, rat, mat, sat… and are inspired to want to learn more. When the vowel changes and the CVC becomes bit, fit, hit, sit and wit, a whole new series of words is theirs.

However, for all its wit, The Cat In The Hat does have serious cultural problems. First of all, two young children are left alone in the house for a whole cold, wet day. What kind of mother does that? Today she would be visited by the Department of Children’s Services. In 1957, when the book was written, it wouldn’t have been cool either. And Mother leaves a cake with burning candles around? My, my. And the Cat — even if researchers find that the concept was derived from racist images of minstrel shows — just walks in? Mother didn’t even lock the door! All day, both children do nothing but watch the Cat’s antics with alarmed, open-mouthed surprise. It’s only the fish who objects. But when Mother is on her way home and it’s time to take action, it's the boy, the unnamed narrator, who gets out the net and captures Thing One and Thing Two with a PLOP, while poor Sally just watches from behind a corner. If the narrative is not racist, it’s surely sexist.

The other day, nevertheless, I read the book for the second time with my four-and-a-half-year-old niece. We enjoyed some big laughs. But we also talked about the things in the story that don’t make sense in the real world. She and all little kids know, I hope, that Mother wouldn’t leave them alone for a whole day, that fish don’t talk, and that cats don’t balance on balls with rakes and cakes. My niece was eager to show me how many more words she could read. The book was helping her master something she’d told me just two weeks before that she didn’t know how to do.

Yes, the Cat comes back and cleans up the mess. And Mother will never know what happened. Or will she?

Important lessons all around.

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