STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, an old childhood friend turns 50 today. A mischievous, irrepressible soul, the Cat in the Hat is half a century old. And while we're celebrating, NPR's Lynn Neary looks back to the beginning, a time when children learned to read with much tamer fare.

LYNN NEARY: It was an instant success when it was first published 50 years ago. Now it enjoys the standing of a children's classic. It's got everything a classic needs, says Anita Silvey, author of "100 Best Books for Children." It has a great plot, great characters, wonderful illustrations, a unique voice.

Ms. ANITA SILVEY (Author, "100 Best Books for Children"): Some books we read and we forget them right away. But there are those other books that they just stay with us. And "Cat in the Hat" is that kind of book.

NEARY: And that means if you grew up reading "The Cat in the Hat," there's a pretty good chance your children will, too.

Ms. SOPHIE COHEN(ph): Why don't you read the title?

GABEL: And the first page.

Ms. COHEN: Okay, then don't forget this part because that's important.

DIO: Oh yeah.

Ms. COHEN: Okay.

DIO: "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss.

NEARY: On a cold, snowy, winter afternoon, Sophie Cohen curled up on a living room couch to listen to her children, nine-year-old Dio and six-year-old Gabel, read from one of her favorite childhood books.

Ms. COHEN: I remember "Cat in the Hat" just being around.

DIO: In your house.

Ms. COHEN: In my house. It was - he was a character. All the Dr. Seuss characters were characters in my house.

NEARY: Cohen began reading "The Cat in the Hat" to her children while they were much younger. Now nine-year-old Dio is a proficient reader.

DIO: (Reading) We looked, then we saw him step onto the net. We looked and we saw him, the Cat in the Hat. And he said to us, why do you sit there like that?

NEARY: Dio says she can remember sounding out the words to "The Cat in the Hat" when she was first learning to read.

DIO: I liked the rhythm and the choice of words, because they were not too easy and not too hard.

NEARY: In fact, the words to "The Cat in the Hat" were drawn from a vocabulary list for six and seven-year-olds. The list was given to Dr. Seuss by William Spaulding, then the director of Houghton Mifflin's educational division.

According to Philip Nel, author of "The Annotated Cat," Spaulding had seen a 1954 Life magazine article by the writer John Hersey. In that article, Hersey had answered the question that was bothering Americans at the time: Why Johnny can't read? The reason Hersey concluded? Because the "Dick and Jane" readers that most schools used were just too boring. Hersey's solution: Dr. Seuss should write a new reading primer for the nation's schoolchildren.

Nel says that Spaulding liked that idea and issued a challenge to Dr. Seuss.

Mr. JOHN HERSEY (Writer, Life Magazine): He said, write me a story that first-graders can't put down. And so Seuss did, and he wrote "The Cat in the Hat" to replace "Dick and Jane." And it was a huge hit. It was a huge commercial success from the moment of its publication. It really is the book that made Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss.

NEARY: Dr. Seuss, also known as Theodor Geisel, had been a fairly successful children's book author up until then, though he was not yet a household name. He thought it would be easy to write the book his friend, William Spaulding, wanted, and expected to dash it off in no time. It took him a year and a half. Nel says Seuss underestimated how hard it would be to write a book using just over 200 words.

Mr. PHILIP NEL (Author, "The Annotated Cat"): Seuss was used to inventing words when he needed them, so to have to stick to a word list was a huge challenge for him. And, in fact, his favorite story about the creation of "The Cat in the Hat" was that it was born out of frustration with the word list.

You know, he said he would come up with an idea, but then he would have no way to express that idea. So he said, and I quote, "I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said I'll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that will be the title of my book. I found cat and hat, and I said the title will be 'The Cat in the Hat'."

NEARY: In the end, Nel says, Seuss used exactly 236 words to write "The Cat in the Hat," words that young readers like six-year-old Gabel Cohen can understand.

Ms. COHEN: Here, I'll group with you, Gabel.

GABEL: But our…

Ms. COHEN: But our fish said…

GABEL: But our fish said, no, no. Make that cat go away.

NEARY: But if the words are important, so too are the characters and situations that Seuss created: An outrageous cat and two strange things creating havoc on a rainy day. And perhaps the most controversial character: the scolding goldfish who warns of dire consequences. The goldfish, says Sophie Cohen, is one of her favorites.

Ms. COHEN: Every time the fish is referred to, there's this whole sort of negative vibe and I just always thought that was a funny part of the book.

NEARY: What about you guys, do you like the fish sort of coming in and sort of being negative about what's going on?

DIO: Yeah.

GABEL: No.

NEARY: Why?

DIO: I think that's funny.

GABEL: Because I like big messes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And that may be the secret to Dr. Seuss' success, his ability to zero in on what kids like and, says Philip Nel, his ability to create a character like the cat who embodies that.

Mr. NEL: He breaks the rules and gets away with it. He's a lot of fun. He creates chaos and creates excitement, and relieves the boredom of a rainy day. And in the end, everything's cleaned up. Mother comes home and is none the wiser.

NEARY: Despite "The Cat in the Hat's" commercial success, it never caught on as a reader in schools. It may have been a little too subversive for schools, says Anita Silvey. Nonetheless she says, it changed the course of children's publishing and the way kids learn to read.

Ms. SILVEY: I think it set the ground work for Houten and many other textbook publishers who begin in the '60s and '70s to bring in good writers, writers who like Dr. Seuss, books published for children. They start to bring those into reading series so that children not only have the mechanics for how they are going to read, they have the motivation of why they want to read.

NEARY: Oh, and of course there's one more big reason why kids and pretty much everybody like "The Cat in the Hat," it's that ending.

DIO: (Reading) Then her mother came in and she said to us, did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do? Sally and I did not know what to say, should we tell her the things that went on there that day? Do we tell her about it? Now, what should we do? Well, what would you do if your mother asks you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GABEL: I would not tell her.

NEARY: Well, who would? Would you? Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find out how the cat got its smile, just play around on the Web for a while. It's at npr.org. And let us know if you find anything that rhymes with org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renée Montagne.

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