A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
JUNE 18:

  • Happy birthday Pat Hutchins (The Wind Blew), Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express), Vivian Vande Velde (Heir Apparent), Connie Roop (Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie), Angela Johnson (Toning the Sweep).
  • It’s the birth date of Pam Conrad (1947-1996), The Tub People.
  • It’s World Juggling Day . Read Juggling by Elizabeth Dana Jaffe and Juggling Fire by Joanne Bell.

For many years, 2 Park Street in Boston served as the headquarters for Houghton Mifflin Publishers. In this Beacon Hill landmark, overlooking the Old Granary Burial Ground, a rickety brass elevator cage took employees up and down to their appointed floors, shuddering and whining as it did. This Otis elevator required the care of an operator—and for many years this operator was Mrs. Williams. During much of her tenure she served as the only black employee of the firm—publishing in those days did not set minority hiring as a priority. However, if there were one thing all employees of Houghton Mifflin could agree upon, it would be their devotion to Mrs. Williams.

Every day she decorated the elevator with fresh flowers. She wore impeccably clean white gloves. She loved her work and always greeted us with a Cheshire cat smile and lots of information about who was in the building. “Roger Tory Peterson is with Mr. Olney today,” she would say as you got in, often showing a book signed for her personally. Mrs. Williams was the glue that kept the company both informed and together.

One day in the early 1950s, she conveyed William Spaulding, head of the Houghton Mifflin Reading Division, to his office with his guest, an army buddy by the name of Theodore Geisel. That day Spaulding made the man we call “Dr. Seuss” an intriguing book offer. Wanting to outstrip his competitor, Scott Foresman, who published the bestselling Dick and Jane series, Spaulding believed there was another way to approach the teaching of reading. He told Seuss that if he could wed what he knew—how to entertain children—with what reading specialists believed, reading instruction in the United States could be revolutionized. Although Seuss admitted he didn’t know anything about teaching reading, he did know a good story when he saw one. And the offerings about Dick, Jane, and Spot seemed inadequate as stories.

So Seuss rode down in the elevator again with Mrs. Williams. Working from a list of a few hundred words, Seuss always maintained that the resulting book was the toughest assignment he ever accepted. “It was like trying to make strudel without any strudel.” But he finally settled on two rhyming words, cat and hat, and began to doodle. Seuss always built his best books out of character, and as he sketched his cat, he remembered Mrs. Williams. Her white gloves. Her Cheshire cat smile. Her black skin.  Slowly The Cat in the Hat took form under the pen of Dr. Seuss.

For Adopt a Shelter Cat month, you can do no better than read The Cat in the Hat, which features the most intriguing playmate in the world. He saves the day for two bored children—and provides a lot of raucous entertainment. Anyone interested in more publishing history about this revolutionary book can find it recorded in Phil Nel’s The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats.

I’m just sorry that I spent years riding with Mrs. Williams up to the fifth floor, never knowing that she had inspired one of the most beloved children’s book characters of all times. So today I’d like to honor her—one of the unsung heroines of the children’s book world.

Here’s a page from The Cat in the Hat:


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Originally posted June 18, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Cats, Humor, Imagination
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Cat in the Hat
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COMMENTS

  1. Timothy says:

    Thank you for this, Anita! It really made my day.

  2. Kelly says:

    Wow, that is an amazing story! And you knew the inspiration behind the Cat! That’s even cooler.

  3. Love it! What a great story.

  4. jama says:

    Love this backstory! Thanks so much :)!

  5. suzi w. says:

    Wow.

    Just wow.

    (and off to do some research on Scott Foresman.)

    BTW, I was given Dick and Jane in first grade. I did not learn to read until second grade.

    Thanks, Anita.

  6. suzi w. says:

    P.S. Sigh of relief that W.R. Scott is NOT the publisher responsible for Dick and Jane. I’d needed a push to figure out where those books went (sold to Addison Wesley, some released later by Harper Collins and Shoe String Press).

  7. Wonderful. I love your book “The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and their Creators” and I love these posts. I’ve read before that Bennett Cerf suggested Geisel write an early reader using a limited word list. Now I would love to know the rest of the story. How did “The Cat in the Hat” end up with Random House and not Houghton Mifflin?

  8. Anita says:

    Suzi: No, different animal. W.R. Scott was experimental, independent press. Scott Foresman textbook giant.

  9. Anita says:

    Aline: You go to the head of the class with that question! The Cerf story has been widely circulated but is not true. However, there were “no flies” on Bennett Cerf. Seuss was his author at the time and mentioned the project offer to Cerf. Knowing a good idea when he heard one, Cerf insisted that Random would not mind if Seuss developed the project for Houghton’s School Division, as long as Random retained the rights to sell the book in bookstores, what we call trade rights. Spaulding agreed.
    Although The Cat in the Hat changed the way reading textbook people thought about content, it sold few copies for Houghton (was issued as a stand alone volume to support the HMCo Reading Series.)
    When Random issued The Cat in the Hat to the trade, it sold a million copies in a couple of years. Cerf did help frame the idea behind Beginner Books, and Seuss went on to create other books with limited texts.

    All this and much more can be found in Phil Nel’s book which I recommend to everyone interested in The Cat in the Hat.

  10. M Gudlewski says:

    Wonderful!

  11. Jamie says:

    What a lovely story! I hope Mrs. Williams knew that she inspired one of the most important characters in American children’s literature! Thanks for this post Anita!

  12. Eden says:

    Facts about the past light up the future. Thank you for sharing such an awesome piece of literary history.

  13. Dora says:

    Such a wonderful book.
    to be a child reading it for the first time is delightful.
    And the pictures are so neat!

  14. Such a wonderful story about such a mesmerizing book.

    Or a mesmerizing story about a wonderful book?

    Thanks for this beautiful story about the birth of The Cat in The Hat! It is wonderful how all the pieces of a story come together and make something that is so greater than all the individual pieces.

    You need a genius to compose such a masterpiece out of seemingly mundane elements.

    The Cat in the Hat is clearly the work of such a virtuoso!

    Read Aloud Dad

  15. crtwojtera says:

    My first grade sister taught me to read with Put Me in the Zoo, Cat in the Hat, and One Fish, Two Fish. I was three. I’ve never stopped reading these books- they are still in my 1st grade classroom ( treated gently as antiques)! Thanks for the awesome background story!

  16. G.Perry says:

    I love this kind of background stories on authors. It brings it all to life in a way that just reading the book doesn’t do.

    Great, great story.

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