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.)

Another Repost? Now That’s Just Lazy: Jurassic Pick

Slightly moldy and warped, but otherwise perfect.

Slightly moldy and warped, but otherwise perfect.

It might be a tad lazy, but this oldie is one of my favorites.

And don’t worry; you’ve probably never read it before. Nobody was reading my blog when I first posted this. 

Enjoy! 

***

Bookshelf space was always at a premium in my childhood home. So when I outgrew my picture books, my mom wasted little time in packing them up into a giant cardboard box and depositing them in a dark, forgotten corner of the basement. Her plan was to parcel them out after I had children of my own. The unveiling of each book would be accompanied by the grandma bon mot: “Your daddy read this when he was your age!”

A vicious rainstorm during my middle school years almost put an end to that plan. Most of the collection remained above the waterline, but others were in sad and sorry shape.

But Mom and I ran hairdryers, Lysol-ed any pages that showed traces of mold and pressed the sorry specimens between dictionaries. Fortunately, most of the books that were beyond the pale were ones that could be easily replaced after my son was born. (The Diggingest Dog, for example.) Other books were no great loss. (Sure, I could buy a new copy of the unsettling Are You My Mother?, but will I? No, sir.)

I was thinking about this 20-odd-year-old event recently because it brought something into sharp focus: a basement flood is an excellent way to determine a book’s value. Most of the books in that wet box entertained me in one way or another, but only a couple of them really mattered.

I would guess that about three or four dozen books were waterlogged in that flood. Some were beyond saving. But even among the salvageable books, decisions needed to be made. There was only so much Lysol and so many heavy dictionaries to go around. Where should I devote the bulk of my rescue efforts? To put it another way, which book would just be too painful to throw away? Amazon.com was still decades away, so a lost book was really lost. Maybe forever.

I found my decisions to be surprisingly swift and easy. Are You My Mother? never got a backward glance. Danger in Dinosaur Valley by Joan Lowery Nixon, however, was a different story entirely.

Danger in Dinosaur Valley was the quintessential children’s book for boys – beautifully bringing together dinosaurs, baseball and time travel in a fast-paced, funny tale of prehistoric survival. The entire story is seen through the eyes of a curious young Diplodocus and ends with a stirring and violent confrontation with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Ah. Remember the days when it was okay to have violence in a picture book?

So… Get me some Lysol and a Merriam Webster, STAT! This book ain’t gonna die on my watch!

The dust jacket never made it, the spine is shot and dots of mold speckle the end pages but my efforts were not in vain. Grandma delivered her line to Alex on cue: “Your daddy read this when he was your age!” True enough, but I also read it at this age, even when my little guy isn’t around. That is a true test of a great picture book.

Danger in Dinosaur Valley has been out of print since the 1970s, but thank heavens we now live in the age of Amazon. Get it. I’ll bet you’ll keep it.

Just promise me you’ll store it on a high shelf.

Which books from your childhood would you rescue from floodwaters?