03.02.16 5:01 AM ET

It Took Dr. Seuss a Year to Write ‘The Cat in the Hat’—and It Changed Kids’ Lit Forever

The creator of the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, and Sam I Am, who would be celebrating his birthday today, taught generations that it is fun to have fun—but you have to know how.

For those of us who were early adopters of Dr. Seuss books, i.e., kids growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was not necessary to own them, because every other kid in the neighborhood always had some. They were just part of childhood’s décor.

Aunts and grandmothers may have plied us with the classics of children’s literature, but nothing in those books, if they were read at all, could compete with The Cat in the Hat or Horton Hears a Who or Green Eggs and Ham.

None of this was discussed, as I recall. There was no open ranking, no discussion in playgrounds or backyards, no “I prefer Seuss to A Child’s Garden of Verses.” That would have been like saying, “I prefer milkshakes to milk of magnesia.”

We just took the excellence of the Seuss books for granted. Not until I was a parent did it occur to me to cast a critical eye on the works of Theodor Seuss Geisel, whose birthday we celebrate today (he would be 112).

I’d begun reading Seuss books to my daughter and son as soon as they were able to sit still for stories, and one night when I realized that I could “read” The Cat in the Hat aloud without looking at the words, I also understood that I had fallen under Seuss’s spell every bit as much as my children had.

An author who can make you memorize his book without thinking about it is a writer to reckon with, but even then I did not realize just how extraordinary his accomplishment was.

I did not know that The Cat in the Hat was an assignment for Seuss and that the assignment arose as a result of the fuss generated by a May 1954 Life magazine article by John Hersey called “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R?” Parents, educators, and publishers were suddenly alarmed by illiteracy. They knew that many children could not read, and many others did not want to. Eventually, someone figured out that what children were being given to read might have something to do with that.

Even in the banal, conformist Eisenhower ’50s—even in the establishment—it had become obvious that anodyne primers like Fun With Dick and Jane were lousy, unimaginative, and just plain boring ways to teach children to read. I don’t remember being polled on this point when I was 6, but if anyone had asked me, I would have quickly agreed that if Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot were what you got once you learned to read, I’d just as soon watch Captain Kangaroo or watch paint dry (same thing).

According to Philip Nel in his extraordinary The Annotated Cat, Houghton Mifflin’s textbook division asked Dr. Seuss to create an entertaining book “that first graders can’t put down.” As far as story or illustrations were concerned, he had all the freedom he wanted. All he had to do was to create a story using very basic one- and two-syllable words chosen from a list of 348. He wound up using only 236. But Seuss being Seuss, he then proceeded to arrange those simple words—many of which had appeared so soporifically in the Dick and Jane books—into a rhymed saga of bedlam unleashed across the page in a joyously hypnotic cascade of (mostly) anapestic dimeter.

Seuss initially thought the assignment would take him a week or so to knock off. Perfectionist that he was—he once estimated that he produced 1,000 pages for every 64-page children’s book he wrote—he wound up working on it for more than a year, and later likened the story’s tortured genesis to “being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love.”

The genius of The Cat in the Hat is that none of that labor ever shows. It looks effortless. And it certainly never looks like a teaching tool. It just looks like fun. (However, while the book’s success with generations of readers is undeniable, its effectiveness as a curb on illiteracy is less calculable, given that the most generous rankings available still peg adult literacy in the U.S. at somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of the total population.)

After having drawn and written books for children since before World War II, Seuss, then in his fifties, found himself an overnight success. Reviewers loved The Cat in the Hat and so did most readers: according to Seuss, the school edition of Cat didn’t do well, because “my book was considered too fresh and irreverent” among teachers still fond of Dick and Jane. But the trade edition, published by Random House, took off immediately. A year and half after its May 1957 publication, The Cat had sold 300,000 copies and was up to 2 million by 1961. To date, Seuss’s books have sold more than 650 million copies worldwide. And all because “it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” And he did know. And he, and his cat, taught the rest of us.

Seuss might have become a household name on the basis of that one book alone, but in fact the cat came back and brought a host of friends, including Yertle the Turtle, Sam I Am, the Sneetches, the Lorax, and the Grinch—the best named character this side of the Snopeses. More than 20 years after he died, he is still delighting new generations.

For his trouble, Seuss did get a special Pulitzer Prize honoring his life’s work, but he never won a Caldecott or a Newbery (he did place a few times), which lets you know what a lot of the children’s book establishment thought of him.

Reading The Cat in the Hat with my kids, I discovered that I enjoyed its anarchy and subversion just as much as they did. There is something about this book that just screams, “School is out!” Whenever we couldn’t decide what to read at bedtime, it was our default title. Sometimes we laughed at the same things, and sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes it was just me watching them discover the pleasure of reading and saying words that someone else had gone to a lot of trouble to make come out just right. Like Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Simpsons, and certain Roald Dahl titles, it can be enjoyed on at least a couple of different levels, sometimes more. It’s that granddaddy of all unicorns—fun for the whole family.

Explaining the allure of Seuss books is ultimately pointless: If we could unriddle it, we’d all do it. But Seuss himself, of course, came as close as anyone is likely to come when he said, “Writing children’s books is a sweat-and-blood thing. You have to get in there and cut and prune and throw your best passages out, because a writer’s best passages, you know, are usually beyond the ken of children—and of adults. Most of them are sloppy writing, and children catch on more quickly when you’re doing sloppy writing than adults do. They just walk away. Kids are a much more demanding audience, because they don’t have to be polite.”

Just this once, though, we will be: Thank you, Dr. Seuss.