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The plot is simple: The narrator, a small boy, is left home on a rainy day with his sister Sally. But their boring day is interrupted by the Cat in the Hat, a weirdly anthropomorphic, talking feline who proceeds to turn their house into a chaotic playground. The illustrations--think Salvador Dali meets Beatrix Potter--are marvelous.
This book is simple enough for beginning readers, yet full of subtle touches that could keep an army of literary critics and psychologists busy analyzing it for decades. And that is the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. Buy a copy of the book for your favorite child, buy a second for your favorite adult, and keep a third for yourself.
To help other parents apply this advice, as a parent of four I consulted an expert, our youngest child, and asked her to share with me her favorite books that were read to her as a young child. The Cat in the Hat was one of her picks.
I have always thought of this book as a metaphor for the sort of "make believe" thinking that children like to do and are good at. The setting is a cold rainy day, and the children's mother isn't home. I have always transformed that into they are playing in their room while their mother is busy elsewhere in the house. Suddenly, a mysterious cat arrives who can do remarkable jugging (until he drops everything) and brings in a fun box (with two little creatures who fly kites). A parental voice, however, is always present in the form of the children's fish who constantly warns them to get rid of the cat in the hat.
Suddenly, the mother is spotted about to reenter the house. The children are panic-stricken. The house is a mess! What to do? They are obviously about to be really in for it. I can feel the adrenaline rushing even now as I remember similar situations with friends as a child.
But then, the cat in the hat returns with a miraculous device which cleans everything up! And then he is gone, just as their mother steps in. She asks, "Did you have any fun? Tell me. What did you do?" The two children don't know what to say. They ask you what you would do if your mother asked you.
The ending is wonderful because it sets up a wonderful opportunity to talk about the story. Would the child let in the cat in the hat? Would the child ask the cat in the hat to leave and when? Was the fish correct in warning the children? What are the other reasons not to let strangers in? Why should you tell your mother if things go awry, or not? In the course of the discussion, fears that the story probably raises can be dealt with in a constructive way that reduces fear in the future and improves communication in the family. Most children have these kinds of fears, but aren't usually willing to bring them up. So the book gives you the excuse to work on improving their security.
This is one of the more difficult Dr. Seuss books for beginning readers, so you'll be reading this one to your child for a while. The appeal to the child is very much in the idea of playing unrestrained in the house. Almost no child is allowed to do that, and the consequences are pretty funny for the child if they are happening to someone else.
If you want to see the earliest versions of the cat in the hat character, be sure to see Dr. Seuss Goes to War which documents his work as a political cartoonist in World War II.
Then, encourage your child to use the book to come up with her or his own ideas about fun things to do as make-believe on a rainy day. Can they imagine a more fun make-believe visitor than the cat in the hat? What would the visitor do? If you ask these questions, you will extend your child's imagination now and for a lifetime.
Enjoy for the rest of your life!