All around the world the name Dr. Seuss is synonymous with The Cat In The Hat. First published in 1957, the book The Cat In The Hat remains a favorite in children’s literature with a number of adaptations for film, television, and the stage.
The classic came about as a result of a story in a 1954 Life magazine article that addressed the question, why can’t Johnny read? Writer John Hersey suggested that children’s low reading levels were a result of – boredom. Dick and Jane were just not stimulating to a young mind. Children just couldn’t relate to the ‘abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls.’ He suggested Theodor Geisel – aka Dr. Seuss – as a guy who could change that. The director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, William Spaulding, liked the idea. Handing over a list of 250 primary words Spaulding gave Geisel the now famous challenge – ‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down.’ Nine months later, Geisel handed over the manuscript and illustrations for The Cat In the Hat. The book is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. Dr. Seuss’ seminal work was so successful as a reading education tool that in 1997 the National Education Association declared March 3 – Seuss’ birthday – the date to celebrate reading during ‘Read Across America Day.’
Many observations have been noted about The Cat In The Hat‘s success – i.e. it stressed phonics as a reading teaching tool, by connecting interesting illustrations with words it amped up the use of storybooks to teach language skills rather than primers and textbooks, it even had deep social and political ramifications (for a bit darker take on The Cat In The Hat, Louis Menand’s 2002 New Yorker article, Cat People, is highly recommended.) But with all that said, it can be simplified with one word – fun.
So it was with the 1959 Revell ‘Dr. Seuss Zoo’ toy set. The Zoo consisted of four snap together models with interchangeable parts. It encouraged creativity by allowing kids (and adults) to make up any number of creatures by mix-and-matching the various parts. Shown below are the main characters – Roscoe The Many Footed Lion, Tingo The Noodle Topped Stroodle, Norval The Bashful Blinket, and Gowdy The Dowdy Grackle. It’s easy to imagine the fun one would have creating different zoo characters with this toy set.
So, what do we come away with when considering Dr. Seuss’ contributions to education and creativity? It’s pretty elementary – when it comes to developing the mind, nothing beats playful and compelling tools. And in today’s 21st century computerized world, that’s easier than ever.