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Tuesday, November 18, 1997 Published at 01:43 GMT

Special Report

Feline frolicks at 40
image: [ copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997 ]
copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997

Life begins at 40, so the saying goes, and for Dr Seuss's most celebrated character, The Cat in the Hat, it may well be true.

For those initiated into the world of Dr Seuss in their formative years, Cat and his fellow Seuss creations never lost their youthful lustre. The BBC's Rebecca Thomas grew up on the Dr Seuss books and assesses their impact on her and her contemporaries.

If this twilight world has so far passed you by, now is the time to step Seusswards. Over the next 12 months and beyond, Cat and friends will bounce back into the limelight with as much vigour as the giant moggy first displayed 40 years ago. A plethora of Seussworld products and projects are coming our way, including new editions of Seuss's stories, a BBC television special, a Spielberg movie adaptation, games, T-shirts, a CD-Rom and a theme park in the USA is planned for 1999.

[ image: copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997]
copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997
But what it is about these books that makes people still want to buy them 40 years on? First, consider that Cat and follow-up Seuss books such as Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, have totalled worldwide sales of more than 200 million. These figures are on a par with another renowned author of children's classics, Enid Blyton.

At the time of his first appearance in 1957, The Cat in the Hat caused a storm in the world of children's literature, revolutionising thinking on how to teach children to read. Here he was, larger than life, bedecked with eccentric stovepipe hat and crooked cane, lambasting his way into the home of two bored and unsuspecting children.

Seuss's magic emanates from the gift of remembering what it felt like to be a child himself: "A person's a person, no matter how small...Children want the same things we want. To laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained, and delighted," he said. And true to this insight, his books captivate the reader with their sublime naivety. Rhyme, zany characters, fabricated but perfectly descriptive words (Seuss coined the word 'Geek'), and energetic abandon reign and the audience is hooked.

But what of the man himself? His real name was Theodore Seuss Geisel, born 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. He added 'Dr' for his father's benefit after he failed to obtain his doctorate from Oxford University.

But was he a benevolent father of many, totally at ease in a child's presence? Far from it. Childless and shy to boot, Seuss's contact with children was minimal. Furthermore, he only began writing for children as a result of a challenge from publisher, William Spalding, to "write a story that first-graders can't put down" with a vocabulary of only 225 words and no adjectives. So after much toying with words that would rhyme, 'The Cat in the Hat' was born.

"He never truly understood where the inspiration came from, only that it was something he had to get out. He had always doodled - which was one of the reasons why he was never a very good Oxford student: he was always too distracted by his own ideas," said Seuss's widow, Audrey Geissel in an interview with the Independent newspaper.

[ image: copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997]
copyright TM Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P 1997
His works take the reader to that timeless zone where the bizarre and frivolous are both possible and natural. That place which exists deep in the subconscious of each of us and into which we all, regardless of age, occasionally hanker to escape. ''I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities, " said Seuss.

Essentially written as children's learning books, Seuss's stories undoubtedly contain latent morality. Take for the example the hectoring voice of reason of the fish in The Cat in the Hat. But let us not fall into that all too adult comfort trap of digging for deep, deep meaning where it isn't necessary. To do so in the world of Seuss is to fail to appreciate or understand it. Get lost and tangled in 'isms', miss the point if you will, but allow the rest of us to wallow indulgently in the pleasure of simply enjoying these tales. In the words of the Cat himself: "It is fun to have fun. But you have to know how."

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