They sit in little chairs and listen to the beginning of the story, the old familiar story. The rainy day, the boredom, the absent mother. Just consider the possibilities! Of course, these days, the mother would be charged with negligence and Child Services would be called. But this is a story of fun and daring, of bright primary colors, of riotous rhyme, jubilance, and wonder, which, yes, can be messy. And thank God for him, that hot mess, which is, The Cat In The Hat!
Word has it that Dr. Seuss wrote the story using words culled from an approved academia list for publishing children’s books. He found other books at the time, especially those used to teach and promote reading, to be boring and rigid, as with the, “Dick and Jane” series. He wanted to create something new, that would capture and excite the imagination. And so he did, so beautifully.
I didn’t really find the, “Fun With Dick and Jane” books dull because I was incredibly excited about learning to read. Just to first open the book was, in a way, sacred. It was the start of something grand and important and I sat there in my checked dress intoxicated by the fresh smell of printed ink. There was a ball and a dog and if you looked ahead a chapter or two, Dick and Jane go to the farm! The only problem was, at that time, I had a slight lisp that affected my reading aloud. Actually, I think I’m reverting to the lisp or perhaps I’ve just begun to drool.
The romance with Dick and Jane did begin to fade due to the pedantic, monotonous repetition of words, “Look, Jane, look, look. See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick,” so by the time I met “The Cat In The Hat,” I was ready. He was new and somehow thrilling, and I didn’t meet him in the classroom but in my house and the mid-century houses of other families, where parents liked him, too, as we lived poised on the verge of a new decade, the glorious 1960s.
Who better to usher in that brave new world but a cool cat with a red and white striped hat, a spiffy bow tie, and a secret smile filled with the promise of mischief. It was a mischief that was missing from Dick and Jane, missing from the staid conformity of the 1950s.
Today, I proudly and fondly bring the story of a brother and sister left home alone on a rainy day to young children in the pre-school theater classes I teach.
“But where did the mother go?” they ask, concerned.
“Well,” I answer pondering that question. “Maybe the little brother was sick at school and she had to go to check on him.”
“Did he throw up?” asks one boy.
“Maybe he did,” I concur, ready to move on.
Another boy offers, “My brother threw up; baby throw-up. Ick!”
The class erupts in laughter, some fall off their chairs on to the floor, as bodily functions are viewed as hilarious, and so they are. One child makes gagging, vomiting noises and while I encourage acting out different activities, this was not quite the direction I had hoped to go.
“Okay! Maybe she had to return a library book,” I offer.
“I like the library,” announces a girl. “Why doesn’t the mother take the children to story time?”
“Well maybe she doesn’t have a car?” I explain, hoping no one would suggest she call an Uber.
“Is she going to ride her bike?”
Knowing we must move on with the story I acquiesce. “Yes, she’s going to ride her bike.”
One observant young man calls out, “But it’s raining!”
“She can take an umbrella,” offers a girl sitting next to him. “A My Little Pony, umbrella.” And so it’s settled.
We start to act out the story. At one point, we have three sisters, a brother and one brave girl who volunteered to be the mother. The mother is supposed to explain she has to leave and advise the children to be careful in her absence. I’ve asked the girl to think of what she would tell her children to keep them safe if she had to go.
“Goodbye, children. I have to take back a library book in the rain on my bike so don’t go with strangers or eat poison cake or break glass.” Sage words indeed.
Finally, we arrive at the grand entrance of The Cat. Now, in the book he just steps in: “We looked and we saw him step in on the mat! We looked and we saw him! The Cat in the Hat!”
However, I thought, perhaps as a nod to civility, that he should knock first, rather then just barge in, which in these days, could be construed as trespassing. So, one child wearing the iconic hat, knocks on the door and the children ask, “Who is it?”
“The Cat in the Hat. Let me in!” comes the answer.
For some reason, the children look uncomfortable, reacting more as if it were The Big Bad Wolf at the door, than a frolicking feline.
“Go away,” they tell him. “You’re a stranger.”
The actor playing the Cat continues to knock with greater conviction, pounding on the door. While I admire his conviction, I fear he’ll hurt his hand.
Then, approximating something like a mob, the children run to the door all together, seeming ready to take on the intruder and send him and his hat packing. I stop things before they escalate into an all-out brawl.
Returning to their seats, we discuss the plot. I explain that if they don’t let the cat in, there can be no story. I talk up the Cat, selling him as a funny, friendly, entertaining kind of guy, like a balloon artist, or the funny uncle, although as the overly cautious fish in the book advises, maybe he really shouldn’t be there when their mother is out. Am I teaching reckless behavior? But we take a chance and sometimes, on a rainy day, that’s what you do.
We begin again. This time, they let the Cat in and although the Cat makes a mess and introduces two wild characters in the impish persons of Thing One and Thing Two, the children laugh and run, pretend to fly kites in the house and then look aghast at the mess that was supposed to be created by the Cat and his friends.
In the end the Cat re-enters with his wacky clean-up machine, which could involve some artificial intelligence features, as it quickly cleans up the entire mess, leaving even the fish smiling. Then, with a tip of his hat, the Cat is gone.
In the final scene the children all want me to be the mother. The whole group sits in their chairs calmly on the stage after bidding the Cat good-bye. With their own Cheshire Cat grins, they welcome me, as the mother, home.
The book ends with Mother asking, “Did you have any fun? What did you do?”
The children muse, “Should we tell her the things that went on there that day? Now what should we do? What would you do if your mother asked you?”
There was absolutely not a moment’s hesitation as they all began talking at once, “A Cat came here! A Cat and it jumped up and down and made a mess! The fish said, no! And there were Things that ran around! And a big machine came in and cleaned it up.”
I stood in the middle of them and saw in their eyes the excitement and joy of having had that adventure, as if it had all really happened.
A striped hat lay empty on the floor, but when I picked it up it wasn’t empty. It was filled with magic.