Philip Nel's The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats
Book review by Steve Barancik
Sometimes people make fun of me. "Don't you feel silly writing 500 word reviews of 200 word books?"
"Not at all," I reply. You see, I know that Master's theses are often written about children's literature, and I know that Philip Nel wrote The Annotated Cat, analyzing The Cat in the Hat AND The Cat in the Hat Comes Back page by page, picture by picture.
And, I'm quite sure, he didn't feel silly for a minute for doing so. Philip Nel leaves Seuss in charge of silly!
And one other thought: if a picture is worth a thousand words - and I'd make the case that it is - then these are 60,000 word books. Now who feels silly?
I used to make my living as a screenwriter. People tended to think what I did was easy.
"I've got a great idea for a movie!"
Every screenwriter has heard that line a thousand times. And we all know that most of those "great ideas" are really only about 7% of a great idea, and that even if you have a 100% great idea...
You still have to write it. Good luck with that.
We all have a tendency to think that what others do is easy. After all, professionals make it look easy.
Brain surgery isn't easy. Plumbing isn't easy. And writing and illustrating a picture book isn't easy. For people who need reminding, I can't think of a better place to start than The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats. And even for people who don't need reminding...
The Annotated Cat is one heck of a fun read!
Nel literally takes us page by page through both Cat books. Consider the first paragraph of his comments regarding page 27 of The Cat in the Hat (CITH):
Seuss's meter creates a parallel between the book's principal opposing forces, "the Cat in the Hat" and "the fish in the pot." Beginning with CITH page 25, the phrase "the fish in the pot" appears three times (also see CITH pages 35 and 39), echoing "the Cat in the Hat" and neatly encapsulating the imbalance of power between the two. The pot confines the fish, leaving him at the mercy of the cat - "his natural predator," as Betty Mensch and Alan Freeman point out.⁸² The hat does not confine the Cat at all: it aids him in his balancing act (CITH pages 15-19) and produces smaller cats in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
- The Annotated Cat page 58
Okay, now, aspiring authors: can you imagine someone writing a book about you writing a book? If not, maybe you're not putting enough thought into what you're writing! Review continues.
The Annotated Cat is great fun. You get to see Seuss's sketches, his preliminary poetry (did you know he wrote in anapestic dimeter?, and you get to compare it all to the finished product. You learn his writing process.
You learn that in the early going he was depicting the Cat as the same size as the kids.
Think of what a huge difference that would have made! Think how imposing the Cat is to the children in the finished version. Just his size gives him an air of authority that makes it harder for them to resist him. That same size makes it more of an accomplishment when they put a stop to his antics!
If he'd been a little kitty, the book would have been less great. In his writing process, he figured that out.
Okay, parents and curiosity-seekers. Here's The Annotated Cat on Amazon, in case you're that interested. I'm going to continue talking to the aspiring writers and illustrators now. (And, if you'd like to check out my two favorite Seuss books, they are The Lorax and Horton Hatches the Egg.)
The making of a groundbreaking children's book author
The Annotated Cat tells us that Theodore (Ted) Geisel began writing early on. He wrote for his high school newspaper. He wrote for and edited a humor magazine in college. He did graduate work in English at Oxford.
During all this time, he also doodled.
He sent cartoons to magazines, placing one in the Saturday Evening Post. His cartoons began appearing regularly in print. Then he became a successful advertising artist.
In his spare time, he began writing children's books. At first, he had trouble getting them published. It was six years before he had his first book - And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street - published.
There was still no career to be had for him in the business. It was 1937. Picture books didn't make that much money.
In 1941, he began a career as a political cartoonist. In 1943 he became a captain in the U.S. Army's Information and Education Division, making films, booklets and cartoons and working with a number of famous and soon-to-be-famous creative types. His team was responsible for coining the acronym, SNAFU.
After the war, he continued to publish children's books and sell short children's stories to magazines. By 1951, he had won three Caldecott Honors but still wasn't making a full-time living.
Then, in 1954 and 1955, two articles appeared in Life magazine. In one of them, entitled, Why Can't Johnny Read?, a decline in reading abilities among America's young was decried. The culprit, it was asserted, were the dreary "primers" being used to teach kids to read, primary among them being the Dick and Jane books.
The writer of one of these articles actually beseeched Mr. Geisel personally - in the article - to take on the task of writing one of these books and revolutionizing the teaching of reading in America's classrooms.
Geisel accepted the challenge. The Annotated Cat makes it clear just how substantial that challenge was.
In order to qualify as primers, these beginning books had to be written from a limited palette of words - 343 is a number commonly given - presumed to be familiar to 6 and 7 year olds. To make the task even more challenging, an author's chore was to use little more than 200 of those 343.
Seuss clearly found it his toughest assignment. He was known to say that he expected the task to take a week, and it actually took a year and a half! Making great art with severely limited resources isn't easy.
But he did it. And the result was The Cat in the Hat.
The Annotated Cat captures a writer-illustrator and his dual crafts. Did you know that Sally's hair ribbon and the Cat's bowtie mirror each character's emotional state?
When the Cat's tie droops, he's feeling sad and defeated. When Sally's hair ribbon reaches for the sky, the kids have seized the upper hand against their feline nemesis.
There's so much here, I'm going to stop trying to summarize it. I will say this though: if you're contemplating trying to make a success of yourself in children's books, you could hardly do better than to study one groundbreaking practitioner of the craft to get an understanding of everything that goes into that craft.
If creating picture books looks easy, you're in for some disappointment. The Annotated Cat could be your ticket to getting serious about the profession.
Now here's the bad news: the book has gone out of print. The link above should take you to some used copies; I hope they won't be too expensive. Please also let the publisher know that you think the book should be in print!
Finally, illustrators, here's a book that is in print (at least as of this writing): The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. Gorgeous stuff. See what he was up to when he wasn't concerned with telling a story!
More on children's book publishing.
More books by Dr. Seuss and about him.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.