"The Cat in the Hat" doesn't feel the same these days. Just a little while ago, the children's classic book was a romp of pure mischievous fun, all the wild and messy things we would have loved to do while our parents' backs were turned, complete with imaginary playmates.
But the recent spate of kidnappings has entered our collective consciousness. Dark interpretation invades even Dr. Seuss.
The book starts out with two very young children--you can tell because as they "Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!" their legs dangle in their chairs far off the floor. They have been left home alone by their mother who, with her trip "out of the house for the day," clearly is due for a visit from child protective services.
Suddenly, a huge and very weird stranger bursts through the door (imprudently left unlocked) and proceeds to ransack the house on the excuse that he's an expert in having fun. The children, though leery of the cat, obviously have received no training in stranger safety because, as the boy narrator explains, they "did not know what to say." The children make no move to call 911, and the cat breezily overcomes any objections by assuring them their mother won't mind at all. Only the family goldfish proclaims that the cat belongs out of the house while the mother is gone, but the killjoy is roundly ignored.
Ultimately, after introducing two even more destructive visitors to the house, the cat picks up all the mess and leaves with a tip of his hat. But every parent knows that this isn't the way such an incident is likely to end. On the closing page, Dr. Seuss offers an even scarier glimpse of how separate a child's life is from the adult world as brother and sister wonder whether to tell their mother about any of this, and ask the reader, "Well, what would you do if your mother asked you?"
The children keep the secret, because in the sequel, the cat returns while their still-clueless mother is "down to the town for the day."
Parents can't help but wonder: Does this book subvert my efforts to teach children not to give in to strangers' demands? Shouldn't today's child be warned never to keep secrets at the behest of potentially dangerous adults?
Come on, it's one of the funniest books ever written in anapest. Can't we just relax here?
Life has changed in sad ways from the days when Dr. Seuss was writing, but a dearth of silliness would be a great loss indeed.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said that even the grimmest of fairy tales help children manage their fears. Maybe that works for adults as well. In that case, we all could use more Seuss. A new copy of "Hansel and Gretel" might help too.