Serious summertime reading’s led to musing about cats. Barbara Tuchman’s 1978 classic, “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century,” informed me that folks back then didn’t fear the Black Death; they dreaded the Great Pestilence, “Black Death” being the Victorians’ later, more dramatic term. Whatever its label, it certainly cheapened life. Tuchman speculated that the era’s high infant mortality fostered small emotional attachment to children and “produced adults who valued others no more than they had been valued in their formative years.” As evidence, she describes some popular pastimes, as when “players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads.”
Being a habitual multi-book reader, I appreciated the serendipitous section about “The Cat in the Hat” in Brian Jones’ “Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination.” Seuss was originally a cartoonist, being published in various magazines, including the humor magazine Judge, in which one cartoon featured a giant lizard peeking at a cowering knight who says, “Darn it all, another dragon. And right after I sprayed the whole castle with Flit.” Seuss had been unsure whether to use the insecticide “Flit,” or its competitor “Fly-Tox,” so he flipped a coin.
The wife of a Flit advertising executive saw Seuss’ Judge cartoon in a beauty salon and shared it with her husband who hired Seuss to draw several cartoon-based ads. Funny ads were almost unheard of in the late ’20s, and Seuss’ ads were wildly popular. Returning from a Flit trip to England, the repetitive boat engines-sounds led to “To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” Seuss’ first children’s book, which led to others, including 1957’s “The Cat in the Hat.” He wrote it “as a controlled vocabulary book with only 223 different words. Seuss created the book as a response to a 1954 article in Life magazine by John Hersey which speculated that the decline in children’s reading abilities in the United States was due to the dull basal readers used in school.” An enormous hit, it “epitomizes the concept of instruction through delight,” according to the Cambridge Guide to Children’s Literature.
The wife of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, Phyllis Cerf Wagner, was a cousin of Ginger Rogers who also worked in advertising and shared Seuss’ desk. Impressed with Seuss’ Cat book, and being married to a publisher, she suggested they form their own imprint, Beginner Books with Suess as president. He reluctantly wrote the first Beginner title, “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” and classics like “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish,” and “Green Eggs and Ham” soon followed.
Beginner Books strove to publish books that were useful and fun to read. However, all authors in the series were restricted to Seuss’ 361-word vocabulary of terms familiar to children, but “no ‘-ed,’ ‘-ing’ or ‘-er’ endings,” plurals were OK “if they can be made by adding only an ‘s,’” but “no possessives are allowed.”
Last March Perri Klass, M.D. wrote “Reading to Your Toddler? Print Books Are Better Than Digital Ones,” and cited research published in the journal Pediatrics that had parents read similar stories to their 2- to 3-year-olds in three formats: print book, basic e-book (“no bells or whistles”), or enhanced e-book (with animation and sounds). Concerned “that the toddlers might be particularly susceptible to distraction by electronic enhancements,” they looked at how the parents and children interacted by studying “the number and kinds of verbalizations” “the amount of collaborative reading that went on,” and “the general emotional tenor of the interaction. “Unsurprisingly, “reading print books together generated more verbalizations about the story” and “more back-and-forth ‘dialogic’ collaboration’.” Enhanced e-books generated the least parent-child interactions by far, “but the basic electronic book without the enhancements was also distracting to toddlers, and they had less engagement with their parent than with print books.”
The Guys Read Gals Read programs were created here in Fairbanks to show fourth graders how fun reading can be because, even though frequent reading kids are more successful, not many parents read anything to their kids. “Children who are frequent readers have people in their lives who enjoy reading,” as Klass wrote, but the percentage of kids who read books for fun five to seven days a week dropped from 57% of 8-year-olds to only 37% of 9-year-olds. If that ain’t a great pestilence, what is?
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.