“I meant what I said
And I said what I meant ….
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent!”
– From Horton Hatches the Egg
Horton Hatches the Egg (Classic Seuss). Story and Pictures by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). Random House, 64 pp., $14.95. Ages 2–up.
By Janice Harayda
Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, once said that he had published great writers like William Faulkner but only one genius: Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). It’s easy to understand what he meant.
Geisel never got a Nobel Prize, or even a Caldecott Medal (though he picked up two Honor Book awards). But he may have done more than any author to instill a love of reading in American children in the second half of the 20th century. No less remarkably, he did it by writing good books, not the sort of commercial flimflam that publishers tend to rationalize with, “At least it gets children reading.”
Some critics consider Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, to be his best. But that book came out in 1937 and reflects stereotypes of its day. A better choice for many families might be Horton Hatches the Egg, a whimsical narrative poem about a gentle elephant who agrees to sit on the nest of a self-absorbed bird named Mayzie when she goes on vacation. First published in 1940, it was ahead of its time in several ways, including in its portrayal of sex roles.
Horton is a male or bull elephant. But Geisel drew him so androgynously – with long eyelashes and a curly trunk – that young children might mistake him for a female of the species. Horton is also a great nurturer. He refuses to leave the nest during thunder and lightning: “And then came the Winter … the snow and the sleet! / And icicles hung / From his trunk and his feet.” Still Horton guards the egg because: “An elephant’s faithful / One hundred per cent!”
Critics often describe this book, correctly, as a morality tale about the importance of loyalty and persistence. But it is also a story about every child’s desire to be “good” even when he or she is afraid, uncomfortable or uncertain about what to do. Horton struggles not just with external forces but with his inner longing to escape the taunts of friends: “Old Horton the Elephant / Thinks he’s a bird!” And because the egg he guards eventually produces an “elephant bird” that goes home happily with him instead of Mayzie, some people see the book as a poignant adoption story, too.
Seuss uses his signature meter, anapestic tetrameter — which resembles the gallop of a horse — to give his tale an exciting momentum although Horton goes nowhere for much of the tale. And the action-filled pictures add to the drama and deepen our knowledge of Horton’s character, especially after gun-toting hunters vow to sell him to a circus. One illustration shows Horton sitting regally on his tree branch, wearing an imperturbable expression, with his forelegs crossed. He leaves no doubt that if the hunters are going to cart him away, they’re taking the nest, too.
Geisel uses only two colors in the book, an orange-red and a blue-green. This restraint is striking by today’s standards, which favor explosive colors bleeding off every page. Children didn’t need razzle-dazzle effects in 1940, and they don’t need them now. What they need is what they get from Horton Hatches the Egg – a great story with characters who have a color all their own.
Best line: “I meant what I said / And I said what I meant …. / An elephant’s faithful / One-hundred per cent!”
Worst line: None.
Published: 1940 (first edition).
Furthermore: Horton returned in 1954 in Horton Hearts a Who! (Random House, $14.95), still in print in the Classic Seuss series.
Links: The Random House site for Dr. Seuss books is www.seussville.com. Another good site is www.catinthehat.org, maintained by the Springfield Library and Museums in the Massachusetts town where Theodor Geisel grew up.
If this book interests you, please consider checking it out of a public library. Increased library use helps libraries justify requests for increased funding. Please support public libraries by checking out books or using other services as often as you can even if you can afford to buy books.
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.