This is part three of a series where we reclaim the problematic narratives of well-known Dr. Seuss books. From exoticism to blackface, Dr. Seuss’ bigotry was implicitly reflected in the storylines, messages, and illustrations of the children’s books we’ve been reading for generations.
For this installment, we’ll reread Horton Hears a Who, the classic tale Dr. Seuss originally wrote to address his anti-Japanese sentiments. Instead of reinforcing the white saviorism of this book, we’ll look at Horton and the Whos in an entirely different way — one that Dr. Seuss may not have been too happy with, but is a much more uplifting message nonetheless.
Horton is a gay single elephant and an accidental adoptive father. One spring day, while going for a swim, Horton’s eye catches something out of the ordinary floating through the air. It’s a small, pink speck of dust emitting a barely audible yelp, which Horton determines is a tiny person calling out for help. Even before coming to the realization that the speck of dust is actually home to not one tiny person, but an entire civilization of Whos, Horton’s fatherhood instincts kick in, and he rises to the occasion gracefully.
“So, gently, and using the greatest of care, the elephant stretched his great trunk through the air, and he lifted the dust speck and carried it over and placed it down, safe, on a very soft clover.”
Horton’s life-altering journey to becoming a de-facto father for the speck of dust is not unlike that of a single gay man adopting a child. Though Horton was more than prepared to father the speck of dust, he didn’t even get 24 hours to mentality prepare for the day he’d meet it — which is actually a realistic representation of the drastic nature of the domestic adoption and fostering process in the United States. After being approved, you can get a phone call at any point, and less than a week later you could very well have a child in your arms if you agree to the proposed arrangement. In Horton’s case, he had to quickly make the decision to rescue or overlook a potentially endangered speck of dust swiftly passing by in the wind.
“Then he heard it again! Just a very faint yelp, as if some tiny person were calling for help. ‘I’ll help you,’ said Horton.”
But Horton’s unwavering selflessness is fraught with haters and headshakers. Immediately, a sour kangaroo mother questions Horton’s intentions to father the speck of dust, refusing to believe it’s in need of a caretaker. Because she’s a mother, she believes she has the authority to judge Horton’s parenting instincts. The sour kangaroo represents strangers who decide that gay people aren’t capable of raising children properly, simply due to human nature. For Horton, it’s because he’s a foolish elephant, and Whos are “too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes.” For many gay individuals, it’s because of their gender and sexuality.
“Through the high jungle tree tops, the news quickly spread: ‘He talks to a dust speck! He’s out of his head! Just look at him walk with that speck on a flower!’ And Horton walked, worrying, almost an hour.”
The fact that the one speck of dust is home to the entire Who civilization is a fitting metaphor for the foster care system in America, and the thousands of orphans that need a home, shouting “We Are Here! We Are Here!” over and over again, like the Whos do, to get everyone in Jungle of Nool to hear them. Despite this disheartening and unfortunate reality, there are still people who are fervently against gay adoption because they care so deeply about children being raised by “real” parents, and not in the absence of a strong (straight) father figure or a nurturing (straight) mother.
“Some poor little person who’s shaking with fear that he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer! I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all, A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Instead of focusing their attention on the 700,000 children in foster care going to loving homes, they focus on the “destruction” of the traditional heterosexual household. Just like how The Wickersham Brothers and Vlad Vladikoff the black-bottomed bird care more about arresting a gay single dad, Horton, and separating him from the speck of dust, than they care about the well-being of the Whos. Without people like Horton, the Whos who had been abruptly uprooted from their homes, would remain in danger. Without adoptive mothers and fathers, some of whom happen to be gay, the number of children in foster care without loving, caring, selfless, capable parents would increase even more.
“‘Grab him!’ they shouted. ‘And cage the big dope! Lasso his stomach with ten miles of rope! Tie the knots tight so he’ll never shake loose! Then dunk that dumb speck in the Beezle-Nut juice!’”
Horton’s adoption of the speck of dust, a seemingly tiny act literally and figuratively, actually ended up making a huge difference in the scheme of things, illustrating the impact of domestic adoption and fostering. It’s one less kid in the system, one more kid with a better future, and one step closer to ending the cycle. Not only that, Horton sets an example for the other animals in the Jungle of Nool who had previously doubted him, inspiring even the sour kangaroo mother to step up her parenting game.
“‘How true! Yes, how true,’ said the big kangaroo. ‘And, from now on, you know what I’m planning to do? From now on, I’m going to protect them with you!’ And the young kangaroo in her pouch said, ‘ME, TOO!’”