Yesterday, Lisa sent me an email she had received from one of her immigration listservs. The note links to a blog post called RI4A: Finding the right Dr. Seuss metaphor for our movement. The author of the post, who goes by the “Nom de Blog” Sneetch posed the question: “What is the best Dr. Seuss metaphor for the immigration movement?” The author of the note first proposed Horton Hears a Who!. Lisa excitedly sent me the note because she knows that “Horton…” is my all time favorite book I have ever read.
Yes, my all time favorite book…ever. Not just my favorite children’s book. Not just my favorite Dr. Seuss book. Not just my favorite book about anthropomorphic elephants. My favorite book ever. So much so, that when my peers in my high school Advanced Placement Literature class wrote reports about Dostoevsky, Austen, and Steinbeck, I wrote a report about Horton Hears a Who!
I love Horton… because I really do believe it is a wonderful story about strength, faith, courage, and justice. It is about doing what you think is right even when it is difficult or when you face ridicule or no one believes you.
It has become a staple for UU Religious Educators and it is taught all over the world. I have seen it published in no fewer than four languages. Plus it is a really fun story.
It tells the tale of Horton, a loveable and gentle elephant, who finds a speck of dust while splashing in a jungle pool. As the speck of dust falls through the air, his powerful ears are able to hear the tiny cries of the people who live in the speck of dust–the Whos. Hearing their calls, Horton catches the speck of dust on a clover and swears to protect them. “After all,” says Horton, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
As Horton travels around the jungle carrying a speck of dust on a clover, he attracts the attention of other jungle creatures. They don’t believe Horton when he says tiny people live in the speck of dust. They are threatened by his faith. They call him crazy. They ridicule him and put him through many dangerous feats of strength and courage to test his faith and commitment.
Finally, the jungle creatures threaten to drop the speck of dust into a cauldron of boiling oil. Horton insists that every Who in Whoville must lift up their voices and make a great sound to let everyone know that the Whos exist. While every Who does make a sound, it is not until the smallest Who of all adds her voice that the jungle creatures finally hear the Whos and believe Horton. It is then that every creature in the jungle commits to join Horton in protecting the Whos.
It is a very good story that touches on all the themes of social justice–especially from a UU perspective. It shows the inherent worth and dignity of every person (no matter how small). It shows that we should work for justice and equal rights. It shows the importance of every hand and voice being raised for the good of others. And it shows the power of faith and commitment to sustain the long and grueling movement toward justice. And how we can soften the hardest hearts through the power of love.
I love this book. I keep of a copy of it on my desk and read it when I am feeling discouraged. I give it away for birthday, coming of age and transition celebrations. I like reading it to kids using silly voices and encouraging kids to say with me the refrain, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
To return to the letter Lisa sent me, Sneetch critiques the Horton frame as being patronizing toward recent immigrants. If we are to follow the Horton theme of the non-profit world as Horton and the immigrants as the Who’s, it shows how non-profits have taken on the role of the protectors of the helpless immigrants. Yet, I believe this is a flawed analysis of the book as it ignores the fact that Horton helps the Whos become moral agents who are able to raise their own voices for justice.
The blog writer Sneetch offers The Sneetches instead. The Sneetches is a great allegory for racism and white supremacy of Dr. Seuss’s time. But I feel that Sneetch missed the point of The Sneeches by focusing on the dangers of materialism that is inherent to the Sneetches story. She compares the modern non-profit sphere to the scam artist McBean in The Sneetches. McBean profits off the pain of those who look for his help. Much as, the author claims, the non-profit world profits from the pain of recent immigrants. But that saddens me. By reading the blogpost, I am sorry to hear the hurt and pain in Sneetch’s words. I know the long journey of justice can be difficult and exhausting. But that is why we need stories like “Horton Hears a Who!” to refresh and inspire us.
Which stories inspire you to keep on the long road to justice? What are your favorite social justice stories, Dr. Seuss or otherwise? Please share in the comments below.
We don't usually post comments on our own blog, but this is such a great topic. My favorite YA author that speaks to social justice & social change themes is Bruce Coville. His "My Teacher is An Alien" series inspired some serious contemplation about how human beings treat each other when I read it as a kid. He also wrote about topics like body image (Jennifer Murdley's Toad) and queerness (The Skull of Truth; Am I Blue?).
For smaller children, I love "Old Turtle" by Douglas Wood and "The Big Orange Splot" by D. Manus Pinkwater, which are both about living in diverse community.
That's funny. A facebook friend tagged me last night to list the 15 books that I've read that will always stay with me. The first one that came to mind was "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. But the second one was "Horton Hears a Who!" For a second I thought, 'but it's a childrens book,' but then the other side of my brain responded, 'yeah, so what?' It is one of the most influential books in my life and definitely played a part in shaping my view of justice, and Horton has been a great role model.
I just finished reading "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn. I had never read it before, but as I've been carrying it around with me, everyone from co-workers to random strangers has been telling that they read it in high school or that it's one of their favorite books. I'm happy to hear that so many of our nation's young people are reading this retelling of cultural stories that challenges humans to think about the ways we interact with all other forms of life on this planet.
I also love the books "Hope for the Flowers" by Trina Paulus and "The Missing Piece meets the Big O" by Shel Silverstein.
In the Dr. Seuss canon, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" has always been a religious text for me. The story holds out the possibility of personal transformation. The Grinch is worn down by the persistent presence of the Whos, living simply and singing their values.
Fiction by Octavia Butler informs my sense of justice and spirituality. I especially like the "Xenogenesis" series and the two "Parable" books. All of them lift up the gifts and limits of communities responding to oppression.