My three-year-old recently noticed “The Cat in the Hat” on her bookshelf, a book my parents saved from my own twentieth-century childhood, which I don’t think I’ve read since I was my daughter’s age. It has appealing rhymes and a story my daughter liked. (The cat is very mischievous!)
But reading the book as a parent aware of the times, I couldn’t help but think that this classic children’s book, which was published in 1957, would never be released now. Sensibilities have simply changed too much.
Yes, children still love hearing rhymes read aloud. However, the whole premise of the book is scandalous in 2018. To refresh your memory: A mother disappears for the day (to do what?), while her young children sit inside bored and wishing it weren’t raining (concerns about sedentary children came later). The Cat in the Hat then appears, seemingly out of nowhere (how did he get in?). He’s entertaining, but also seems to be a complete stranger (and the kids are amazingly copacetic about that).
I wondered if this reflected parenting styles changing with the decades. However, my mother and mother-in-law, both children of the ‘50s, say they were never left home alone like this at young ages. So, perhaps Dr. Seuss set the scene as more a matter of silliness, a kid’s version of what the mice do while the cat is away. But thinking of this as harmless fun — as it was likely intended — truly feels like visiting another era.
I can’t imagine a contemporary writer committing anything similar on paper. In the 21st century, there is no joking about leaving kids unattended for fear that someone will miss the joke and call Child Protective Services (CPS). While I’m sure CPS existed in the ‘50s, I don’t have the sense it was used as a cudgel against political opponents and other parents the way it is today.
Beyond that, there are simple issues of safety to consider. The cat manages to enter the house without knocking or ringing a doorbell. Did he find a spare key, or did the mother forget to lock the door? Perhaps we are meant to assume that Sally and her unnamed brother live in a low-crime neighborhood (and era), so we shouldn’t worry about that.
Still, shouldn’t the children be frightened by this uninvited creature, at least initially? There is no apparent fright, only delight. Perhaps that makes for a better, funnier story, especially for preschoolers.
That said, stranger danger has been preached to children at least since I was young. I was always taught not to open the door to strangers, and I wasn’t left home alone until I was older than Sally and her unnamed brother look. In our time, an 80-year-old man can’t say hello to a child in a supermarket without authorities being called.
Lastly, there is the matter of the fish. The pet fish is, of course, the closest thing Sally and her brother have to a babysitter. The fish advises them the cat shouldn’t be allowed in the house while their mother is out, before being disregarded. Now, the cat could theoretically have eaten the fish, as cats are wont to do, and he doesn’t. Either he’s too nice a cat, or perhaps he’s a vegetarian.
The cat does decide to have his own version of fun with the fish. He plays a game of what he calls “Up-up-up with a fish!” wherein he bounces the fish, still in its bowl, on the cat’s umbrella handle. The fish doesn’t enjoy this game in the least and complains while the cat continues to juggle him.
I couldn’t look at this without imagining this book coming out now. PETA or some similar group would protest, claiming the book teaches children to engage in animal cruelty. After all, the fish clearly opposes this game, participating without consent. In Dr. Seuss’ era, presumably this was not an issue, but it would be in ours.
All of this makes me think writing a memorable children’s book would be harder than it looks. Timeless lessons worth teaching children still exist, but there are also a lot of cultural landmines a writer now needs to avoid. Childhood has become serious business. I just hope our children still remember to laugh.