Put The Cat Out

I used to be allergic to this guy.
I used to be allergic to this guy.

Perhaps my dislike of cats can be traced back to The Cat In The Hat.

My adult self can appreciate the punchy rhymes, solid story arc, and gorgeous pen and ink drawings. But a big part of me can’t help but consider Seuss’s most popular book to be a misfire of sorts. Seuss didn’t write for adults, he wrote for kids, and, as a kid, I found The Cat In The Hat to be terribly unsettling.

Think about it. Two children, perhaps seven years old, are home alone. That’s a vulnerable situation to be in. I had firsthand knowledge of this; I was a latchkey kid and was allowed to be home alone at about that same age. I liked having the house to myself because it made me feel very grown up, but those feelings of maturity were tempered by…was it anxiety? I’m not sure. But when I was alone, a teensy little thought sometimes niggled around in the back of my brain: “What if something happens?” I didn’t know what that something could be, but I did know that some somethings could be very dangerous. Would I be able to handle it? Would I know what to do? Could I keep safe?

The Cat In The Hat seemed engineered to tap into that fear. Without warning, or even a knock on the door, a cat, the size of an adult male, bursts into the house and demands that the children take part in reckless and destructive games that aren’t really games at all.

And this cat is a bully. At the first sign of protest – courtesy of a fussbudget fish – he retaliates with a game called “up-up-up with a fish,” perching the finned fellow’s glass bowl on the handle of his umbrella. When the fish protests further, the cat goes out of his way to make him even more alarmed, by grabbing and balancing more household objects until they all inevitably crash to the floor.

For the young me, that fish was The Cat In The Hat’s lonely bright spot. I loved that little guy. Even after a terrifying fall; even though he had to endure the humiliation of swimming in a pot; even though he was in direct conflict with a natural predator; that proud, brave little guy ripped that cat a new one.

Just take a peek at the fish’s post-fall rant:

“Now look what you did!”

Said the fist to the cat.

“Now look at this house!

Look at this! Look at that!…”

And on it goes. It’s a fabulous “I told you so” moment. Oh, I loved it so.

As a child I loved neatness and order. I liked to play by the rules. Because of this, I tended to gravitate toward wet blanket characters in children’s literature. My favorite Sesame Street Muppet? Bert. My favorite animal from Winnie the Pooh? Rabbit. I identified with characters who existed only to be tormented by the act-first-think-later Ernies and Tiggers of the world.

Fortunately, in Bert and Rabbit’s case, the worst punishment either character received was exasperation. That fish, however, was being threatened with bodily harm.

But the little guy still fought, God bless him!

The fish’s moral victory is a fleeting one, of course. A few moments later, the cat unleashes the Things, and the situation goes from bad to much, much worse.

At least the cat didn’t try to destroy the items he balanced on his umbrella. It was an accident. A stupid, selfish, dangerous, and entirely avoidable accident, but an accident nonetheless. Those Things, on the other hand, were wired differently. The destruction they wrought was deliberate. They delighted in it. I found it awful.

Yes, yes, I know. The boy in the story eventually springs into action and traps the Things in a net. Yes, the Cat cleans up the mess before the mother gets home. But that, in my view, did not make everything OK. That self-absorbed interloper created a lot of undue stress for the kids and that fish, all in the name of “fun” – fun that only he was having.

Not cool, cat. Not cool at all.

Dr. Seuss wrote a lot of stories with similar types of mayhem built in, but The Cat In The Hat was the only one I didn’t enjoy. It was a book that knew exactly how to push my buttons.

That said, I did, eventually, learn to appreciate The Cat In The Hat‘s charms. When my older sister was pregnant with her first child, I offered to paint a mural in the new nursery.

What I chose to paint was that confident cat, locked in eternal conflict with that marvelous, underappreciated fish.

This guy is about seven feet tall. Not pictured: two terrible Things flying kites. (Click to see larger.)
This guy is about seven feet tall. Not pictured: two terrible Things flying kites. (Click to see larger.)
Fish detail. I love this guy. (Click to see larger.)
Fish detail. I love this guy. (Click to see larger.)

76 Replies to “Put The Cat Out”

    1. Thanks, Vanessa! I am, of course, available for dragon commissions. 🙂

      For his earlier titles, Seuss did gear his stories for both adults and children. In TCITH’s case, however, Seuss was attempting to create a book to replace the lame Dick and Jane readers so common in American elementary schools at the time. So this book was written exclusively for children, using a standard vocabulary appropriate for a six-year-old.

      TCITH had a pretty interesting publishing arrangement. Both Houghton Mifflin and Random House published the title – with Houghton marketing the title for the education market and Random taking the commercial market. Houghton got the short end of the stick with that one; educators weren’t interest in The Cat. The general public, however…well, you know.

      I’m not sure why I know all this, but I do.

      1. I might take you up on that dragon commissions thing. I have a few I need drawn. Of course, I have no money so I can only wish. 🙂

        Personally I love Theodore Geisel’s work. I had no idea about the Houghton Mifflin background. Cool stuff to know.

  1. Never thought about Cat in the Hat that way, but I see why it would be scary. I loved Bert though. He was neat and organized, and had the best unibrow ever.
    Love the mural!

  2. Wow! Those illustrations are fabulous. I do remember feeling nervous that the house wouldn’t be cleaned up in time…but, still a true fan. My kids just celebrated his b-day at school with red and white striped hats, their p.j.’s and readings out loud. So much fun!!

  3. Hilarious! Although Seuss was definitely not a “sweet” storybook character by any stroke of the imagination, considering his biography. Someone recently mentioned that Seuss owed his unique POV, and his Pulitzer, to Seagrams–a possible source of his “darkness.”

    You remind me of my niece’s son, one who has insisted–since the day he could express an opinion–that everyone put their shoes and coats in order when coming in to the house, among other things. He has a profound sense of how the world should be ordered and will let you know if you are not following along correctly. His father is a fabulous lawyer who was the kid who followed rules and was upset when others didn’t, especially when they didn’t get their comeuppance. So it must be genetic. My son, on the other hand, identifies completely with Tigger. He gets it from his father. :o) I reside somewhere in the middle, a Tabbit or a Rigger.

    1. Seagrams? I think more explanation is needed. Gimmie gossip!

      I share a home with a couple of Tiggers (or Ernies) who, otherwise are lovely people whom I would gladly give my fusbudgety life for.

      That said, I am fortunate to I have an ally in my rat, Lucy, who (after the recent passing of the sloppy, more dominant Ethel) revealed her neatnick true colors. She and I get along famously.

  4. I was torn between digging the kitty shenanigans & sympathy for the fish…>^^< & <^<<< both good, you see.

    Finny write. I never once viewed it that way before, and that makes this especially interesting.

  5. Now that you mention it, there are all kinds of things wrong with Cat in the Hat. For one thing, where are his clothes?

    Excellent mural. You are such a talented man!

  6. I never looked at it the story that way. What an eye-opener! I loved The Cat in the Hat video and made sure to share it with our son. We still sing parts of the song – “in English: cat, hat; in French, chat, chapeau; in Spanish, el gato in a sombrero.” Ahh, you made me smile today. Love the mural pictures. Your niece/nephew is fortunate to have them.

    1. When I was young, my dad would rent a 16mm print of TCITH from the library and play it for the kids at family events. The movie never bothered me like the book did. The cartoon’s cat was a pretty charming, avuncular figure, actually, who sang catchy songs that the children clearly enjoyed. The animated cat was not a great babysitter, to be sure, but he was not the menace depicted in the book, either.

      I even have an animation cel from the cartoon hanging in my office. Check the link; it’s hanging on the wall right above my head:

  7. Best review of Cat in the Hat!

    It truly is amazing the things we feed our children without evaluation. This is a great example. Grimms Fairy Tales and Walt Disney also are questionable. Most kids seem to overlook the literalness of these stories and so, we as parents don’t see any problem with them…unless you happen to have the one child that for some reason or other gets the evil in the evil characters (quite wicked) of Walt Disney and is terrified while watching and has nightmares when seeing Disney. This describes a student of mine and also my grandson.

    On the other hand, I am fond of the silly shenanigans of the Cat in the Hat and was considered the coolest teacher when I donned on the costume one Halloween. Now I know what it’s like to be an amusement park animation character.

    1. Once upon a time I showed my little guy Fantasia 2000 – completely forgetting about the multiple scares contained in The Firebird Suite.

      For years thereafter my son had a very powerful fear of volcanoes and I felt terrible about it.

      As for The Cat In The Hat, my boy loves it. Where I once saw menace, he sees silly — and thank goodness for that!

      1. So good that you recognize the difference in perception (Cat in the Hat) and he is allowed the pleasure of enjoying it.

  8. A.) Your sister and her child are very fortunate.
    B.) You clearly have given The Cat in The Hat much thought.
    C.) I think that Cat in the Hat is not really Dr. Seuss’s best book. I love The Sneetches.
    D.) I was a latchkey kid, too, and you do a great job of describing the feelings involved. So tenuous. So fraught with anxiety and impending adulthood.
    E.) I wish you were available for contract murals.
    Good to read your stuff again, Mike!

    1. Many thanks, Anne! Again welcome back to the blogging world; as you know, I love, love, love your posts and welcome your thoughtful comments on my site.

      I like The Sneetches, too (and always thought that the entrepreneurial McMonkey McBean must be a distant relative of The Onceler). My Seuss faves, however, are Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs, and I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (which, is perhaps Seuss’s most underrated book).

      As far as mural commissions are concerned, make me an offer! 😉

  9. OoooOOoooh! More of your amazing talent! I am loving these blog posts that feature your artwork.

    And I have to agree, the Cat in the Hat wasn’t Seuss’s best (and that Cat was an a*#hole, LOL). My favorite Seuss book is “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” My two-year-old’s favorites are “Put Me in the Zoo” and “Fox in Socks.” 🙂

  10. I loved this post! Your mural is AMAZING and I found your whole new take on ‘The Cat in the Hat’, fascinating! Never saw it like that myself. I loved authors who trusted me with the darker stuff as a kid, Dahl too, though of course always wrapped up in lots of hilarious humour. I think we’re a little too scared of being honest and open with kids today, too much cotton wool protection’ll only make you choke right?

    1. Dahl was (and is) is great. That said, he did writer for older kids.

      Seuss, if anything, is a greater talent than Dahl. The worlds that man created are incredible and timeless. And, on an intellectual and artistic level, I can see that TCITH is a great book.

      TCITH doesn’t hit many people the same way it hit me as a child. My own son, for instance, loves that cat.

      Life experience colors everything.

      1. Indeed it does:-) Dahl is more precious to me personally, but there’s no doubting Seuss’ genius. There’s serious room for discussion in here somewhere – best kids authors? Why? How has/is children’s fiction changed/changing and how is that a reflection on the society we now live in? …etc etc Hearty topics! I love a good debate…

  11. I agree that the Cat in the Hat is no role model. I was going to argue that it was a bit extreme to hate all cats because of a seven-foot fictional feline bully, but I have to admit that The Giving Tree put me off men for a long time.

      1. Yep. I always wanted that tree to say something like, “Aren’t you yet old enough to solve your own damn problems? And how about planting a few seeds, dummy, so my legacy can be a little more than a rotted out stump? Man, do I hate you.”

      2. I liked The Missing Piece because eventually the circle figured out hadn’t been missing anything in the first place.

        Or maybe I made that up?

  12. I just wrote you a looong response to this, and then lost it by clicking on your illustration (which is just so neat). In a shorter version, I will say that I always disliked the cat (I disliked people who got away with thumbing their noses at rules) and I resented the fish because I WAS the fish, I was a namby pamby (is that a word? I called myself it all the time) who, like the fish, wanted to tell the rule-breaker to JUST STOP. It wasn’t cool to be a fish, but by god, we fish need to keep the world in order, don’t we?
    Beautiful illustrations.

    1. Aww. But I like your long responses!

      Yep, the world needs caretaking fish and Berts and Rabbits and Marge Simpsons. Someone’s gotta be the voice of reason out there. Someone’s gotta protect the world from gregarious idiots.

      But, yes, it is a thankless and quixotic task. I feel your frustration.

      Sigh. I just depressed myself.

      1. Oh, indeed! That said, responsible folks don’t need to be responsible 24/7. They can, on occasion, dip their toes in the waters of gregarious idiocy. So if you wanna let loose, go ahead, my friend. I’ll be here ready to bail you outta jail.

  13. This post is so right and so wonderfully written. When I read The Cat to my kiddos, which I was doing just this week, I always pause and contemplate whether to discuss what they should do if a cat were to enter the house while mother was away.

  14. So THAT’S why you don’t like cats! To be fair, The Cat in the Hat isn’t one of my favorites either. I thought he was a little obnoxious. I still do, really. I think he should be covered in oobleck. Also, that mural is something else. You are a man of so many talents.

    1. Well, thank you, Madame! That mural was a fun project and I’m pretty proud of it, considering it’s the first one I have ever tried. Here’s hoping I’ll have an opportunity to do another one sometime.

      Ah, oobleck. That, combined with The Lorax’s gluppity-glup, would be the strongest superglue known to mankind. Where’s a resourceful capitalist like The Onceler when you need one?

  15. Wow! You painted that? You are uber talented.

    I was never a fan of cat in the hat. I don’t think we owned the books, to be honest. My kids love them but I have to read them. The rhyming irks the heck out of my husband.

    And you were left alone at that age? Yikes!

    1. Thanks, Jennifer!

      And yup, I was left alone as a young’un. Not for long periods of time, just the one or two hour gap between when I came home from school and Mom came home from work. Also, I was the last to leave in the morning, so I would be charged with locking up the house before heading off to school. It was a different era.

      But wait a sec. I have never ever heard of anyone getting irked by rhymes. Do explain this further.

      1. He just can’t stand the rhyming in the Cat in the Hat, or any other Doctor Seuss. I swear it is a childhood phobia haunting him as an adult or something.

        The kids keep coming home with Dr. Seuss stuff for Dr. Seuss month, and he cringes every time. 🙂

      2. Oh there’s a deep scar there, that for sure.

        Did a Grinch ever steal all his stuff? Is he the recipient of an unfortunate star tattoo? Did his parents force him to eat green meat? Did he have an awful family vacation at Solla Sollew?

      3. Funny … Every year this time the kids ask for green eggs and ham. The first time I did it he wasn’t home. Since then he has forbidden it. When they ask– I wait for him to go to the gym and make it for them anyway. 🙂

  16. Wow, I totally forgot about the actual plot of this book until I read this post! surreal and amazing to re-live that book as an adult! Everything you described, after reading, I totally remembered and was able to picture the illustrations in my mind! Anyway, that is so sad and cute that you were such a stressed child! I’m so glad you reconciled with the book. Also, that mural is seriously awesome. To be able to do detail and step back and have it still look the shape you intended takes time! Hat tip!

    1. Howdy, Kaleidoscope!

      I wouldn’t describe myself as a stressed child, but being left home alone as such a young age can make the stress bubble to the surface on occasion, that’s for sure.

      And thanks for your kind words about the mural! It also includes the Things. (One Thing is flying the kite seen behind the cat’s head and the other is dangling from the kite’s tail.) Maybe I’ll post pics of the Things in the future — if I ever write a post about someone who has an uncontrollable id.

      Hm. I never have dedicated an entire post to my sister… 😉

  17. I love your analysis of this children’s classic. As the oldest child, with two younger brothers, this story always bothered me because I was the babysitter responsible for my brothers whenever Mom & Dad went out. It was always my fear that we’d get some home invader, AKA The Cat, who would come into the house and create havoc. On the other hand, Thing One & Thing Two always reminded me of my brothers who would make it their purpose in life to make my job as babysitter as difficult as possible! 🙂

    Did you know that Dr. Seuss produced a record of some of his stories? My parents bought it for us and I listened to it for hours until I could recite the entire thing, including ‘Bartholomew and the Ooblek’ and ‘Yertle the Turtle’.

    You did a great job on the mural, making me consider you a ‘bird of a feather’. As an Auntie, I was commissioned to paint murals for my niece and nephew, too. When they were really young, I painted Care Bears on their playroom wall. As a teen, my niece was enamored of unicorns, so she asked me to paint them on her bedroom wall. There’s something rather challenging about taking a small sketch and blowing it up to larger-than-life. 🙂

    1. My older sister was a bit of a “Thing” back in the day. As kids, she and I didn’t get along very well.

      Oh, do post some mural pics on your blog. I’d love to see ’em! The Cat was my first (and only) attept at a mural. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out, but I would do things differently next time around.

      I didn’t know about the recordings of Seuss’ books. I did know that Seuss’ Gerald Mc BoingBoing began its life as an LP before it was made into a theatrical cartoon, however.

      1. I don’t currently have any pics of my murals, but I just asked my sister-in-law if she does. They’ve since been taken down or painted over now that her kids are adults living away from home. She’s pretty busy these days, but when I get copies, I’ll certainly post them.

        I have actually never heard of Gerald McBoingBoing. I’ll have to go look it up! 🙂

  18. Mike, this post is great 🙂 Of course, I had no problem with these things when I was a kid (which was in the early 60s prior to a more pronounced “latch key” world. I also think I never confused the imaginary world with the real one—well, accept for believing in Prince Charming well into adulthood.Talk about a wake up call! lol I made my son this Cat for Halloween one year, and as comfortable as I made it, I think the material may have still been uncomfortable : /

    GREAT job on the mural, by the way! 😀

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