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MIKE KEELER: A Genius in 236 Words

OK aspiring writers, this one’s easy. Maybe too easy.

Your assignment today is to write a story of only about 1500 words. But there’s a catch: all the words in your story have to be two syllables or less, OK? Oh, there’s one other thing: you can only use 236 different words, so you’ll have to repeat a lot of them. Oh and one other thing: it can’t be prose, it has to be a poem. In fact, it has to be in anapestic tetrameter, which goes like this, “da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM” over and over again.

This is all pretty simple, right?

Well, here’s the final challenge: write something so engaging that it becomes a cultural icon and one of the most popular stories of all time.

OK? Ya think you can do that?

We don’t know if Ted Geisel thought he could pull it off, but he did. He had read an article in Life Magazine that criticized the quality of children’s books and suggested that someone should do better.

Geisel rose to the challenge. He talked to a publisher, who provided him a list of 400 words that young readers should learn. Geisel cut the list down to 223, and added a few that weren’t on the list, and wrote a story containing only 236 simple words. (221 of the words are a single syllable, 14 have two syllables, and only 1, “another,” has three syllables.) To give the story a little juice, Geisel wrote it as a poem.

The first line of the story goes like this: “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.” The story is about a little boy and his sister Sally who are visited by a mischievous cat dressed in a red bow tie and a red-and-white striped hat, who performs all sorts of daring tricks.

While standing on a ball, he balances a teacup, a glass of milk, a cake, three books, the family goldfish, a rake, a toy boat, a toy man, a red fan, and his umbrella. He proceeds to tear the house apart, and then, miraculously, cleans it all up only seconds before the children’s mother arrives home.

When “The Cat in the Hat” was published in 1957, it retailed for $2, and a year later the price was reduced to $1.95. It has since sold over 11MM copies, making it the 9th best-selling children’s book of all time. It has been translated into over a dozen languages; in Latin, it is known as “Cattus Petastus” (that’s a lot of syllables) and in Yiddish it is “di Kats der Payats.”  Oy.

And looking at it now, it’s all so simple, right? Anybody could do it. Even you.

All that stands between you and literary immortality is one little story. 236 tiny words. Go ahead, we dare you, give it a try. It should be easy…

  • Mike Keeler

    Mike Keeler

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