The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957, seems like a simple, straightforward text. After all, Theodore Geisel, under the pen name Dr. Seuss, wrote beloved picture books for young children, and he used a total of 236 different words—most of which are a single syllable—to tell the story. Additionally, the book’s premise couldn’t be more conventional: two bored children receive an unexpected visitor—the mischievous Cat in the Hat—while their mother is away.
In spite of its simplicity, The Cat in the Hat remains one of the most subversive, provocative texts written for young children. The stylistic and illustrative peculiarities of Seuss have been so integral to children’s literature for decades that it seems difficult to imagine a time when his books were considered out-of-the-ordinary or inappropriate. After World War II, though, the Dick and Jane primers dominated the genre. Intentionally written to model well-mannered, compliant behavior for children, the Dick and Jane primers did not represent the wonderfully disobedient, egocentric, and fearful streaks of young children's natures. Additionally, Dick and Jane heavily relied on memorization techniques in teaching children how to read. This reliance came at the expense of creative plots, engrossing illustrations, and phonics, a literacy-instruction method that emphasizes the relationship between sounds and the correlating text.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, writers John Hersey and Rudolf Flesch began publicly deploring the ineffectiveness of mainstream young children’s literature. Hersey hailed Seuss, by contrast, as a “genius” capable of enriching the genre, and Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read featured a list of 72 words that young children should be able to read. Hersey and Flesch’s criticisms led to publisher William Spaulding challenging Seuss to write a book entirely composed of words that every first grader should know. Spaulding additionally provided Seuss a limited list of words—similar to Flesch's list in Why Johnny Can’t Read—to use for the book. (Seuss has stated that Spaulding supplied a list of 347 words but insisted that the book’s vocabulary could only use 225 different words in total. However, Seuss has given different numbers in interviews throughout his career.) With that, The Cat in the Hat was born.
An instant smash hit, The Cat in the Hat sold over a million copies by 1960, three years after its initial publication. The book was a critical success, too: The Saturday Review’s Helen Adams Masten hailed the book as a “tour de force,” stating, “Parents and teachers will bless Mr. Geisel for this amusing reader with its ridiculous and lively drawings, for their children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all.” Ellen Lewis Buell of The New York Times Book Review shared Masten's praise: “Beginning readers and parents who have been helping them through the dreary activities of Dick and Jane and other primer characters are due for a happy surprise.”
The Cat in the Hat radically departed the conventions of the Dick and Jane primers—and redefined the children's literature genre in turn. In its questioning of authority, celebration of lively and boisterous fun, and endorsement of phonics, The Cat in the Hat proved that children’s literature can be serious, teachable, entertaining, and meaningful—all at the same time. Indeed, decades after The Cat in the Hat’s publication, Seuss remarked, “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.” While Seuss took a risk in creating such a subversive work, it certainly paid off, as proven by its enduring respect and popularity within the world of children's literature.