Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 4.20.53 PMAnita Silvey’s wonderful “Cat in the Hat” backstory on her Children’s Book Almanac site yesterday reminded me of another anecdote about this classic that I will never forget.

I heard this “Cat in the Hat” story from a favorite writer during a book tour stop a few years ago. I can’t do it justice from memory, but this is the gist:

When he was very young and couldn’t read yet, the writer asked his grandfather to read “The Cat in the Hat” to him; he was thrilled to find that the story became more entertaining each time they sat down with the book.

After his grandfather had read the story to him a few times, the writer brought the book to his mother one day and asked her to read it. After a few times reading “The Cat in the Hat” with his mother, he was very disappointed: When she read the story, it was EXACTLY the same every time. He didn’t understand; his grandfather’s “Cat in the Hat” took on exciting and unexpected twists and turns with each reading. Why was his mother’s version so dull?

Only after the writer was much older did he figure out the reason – his grandfather could not read. But by relying on those quirky Dr. Seussian illustrations and his imagination, he managed to make “The Cat in the Hat” come alive for his grandson in a new and colorful way every time.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many writers talk about their work and influences at our local independent store (Quail Ridge Books and Music) over the past few years, but this is the story that has stuck with me.

I was moved by the fact that the grandfather didn’t make up excuses and sidestep his grandson’s “Cat in the Hat” request. Instead, he improvised and made use of one of his innate skills – imagination. And what a great (and unexpected) payoff it brought – his improvisation made him a storytelling master in his grandson’s eyes.

I work as a writer, but I’ve always been awed by the storytelling power of illustrators; so many vivid images from childhood books (mine and my daughter’s) are stored in my memory along with the stories they accompanied. But these days, most of the books waiting on my bedside table contain page after page of words and only words, and as my daughter has gotten older, the same can be said for many of the books in her reading stack.

In the midst of all of those words, this story always reminds that inspired images (mixed with a lively imagination) have the power to conjure up endless stories without a single written cue.


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