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A cat with staying power

November 21, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Donna Parks, head of the children's department at Washington County Free Library, recalls spending a lot of time reading "Horton Hatches the Egg" to her then 4-year-old nephew.

That was about 40 years ago, Parks says, but she still remembers the Dr. Seuss verse, and can break into a few lines of the story of the lazy bird Maysie, with a little bit of encouragement.

Dr. Seuss is the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1904. The author's children's books have proven to be a durable staple of children's libraries and adults' fond memories. All ages can share recollections of characters such as the grumpy Grinch and the rascally Cat in the Hat.

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That cat has gone Hollywood. "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat," a new movie starring Mike Myers as the mischievous feline, opens nationwide today. Other Seuss books have crossed into visual media. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the film starring Jim Carrey, was big at the box office, earning $260 million as the highest grossing film in the United States in 2000, according to The Associated Press.

Geisel wrote and illustrated 44 children's books, including "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," his first to be published after 27 rejections, according to the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Web site at www.catinthehat.org.

At the time of his death in 1991, more than 200 million copies of Seuss' books had been published, and his work had been translated into more than 15 languages.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

So what's the appeal?

"The rhythm," says Sharon Morris, children's librarian at Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library in Martinsburg, W.Va. She remembers reading "Green Eggs and Ham" to her own children more than 30 years ago.

"That Sam-I-am!" she laughs.

Morris says that Seuss' words are carefully chosen. She cites his humanity - his understanding of human nature - as part of his allure.

"He is one author who has become a classic in my time," Morris says.

Children like Seuss' wordplay - the repetition of sounds - and his silly cartoon-like illustrations, Parks says.

"Nobody rhymes like Seuss," says Ray McDonald of Hedgesville, W.Va., who has been involved in the Read-Aloud program in Berkeley County schools for several years. McDonald, who wrote his own book - "Bookworm Briefs," a collection of 16 stories for kids, reads to kids at Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library and is a regular participant in its annual celebration of Dr. Seuss' birthday in March.

The Read-Aloud program in which McDonald participates was inspired by Jim Trelease, author of three books, including "The Read-Aloud Handbook." The guide includes a bibliography of more than 100 children's books for reading out loud. The book has sold more than 7 million copies.

Trelease's mission is not about teaching children to read. It's about teaching children to want to read.

"The Cat in the Hat" and Seuss' other Beginner Books are written with only 225 "new-reader" vocabulary words. The "controlled vocabulary books" bear a logo with the prankster cat and the words "I can read it all by myself."

Trelease says that parents make a mistake when they read Dr. Seuss' Beginner Books to children who are 6, 7 and 8 years old. They are not beginning listeners, he says, adding that it's insulting to read these books to kids older than 4.

But Trelease, who happens to live in Springfield, doesn't deny Seuss' appeal.

He succeeds on many creative and imaginative levels, he says.

Children enjoy Seuss' books because children like to play with language. Parents remember the stories from their own childhoods and like them for their nostalgia.

"One of the reasons we read is to experience forbidden fruit," he says.

We enjoy watching somebody else - the kids and the cat - engage in risky behavior without having to suffer consequences ourselves, he says.

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