As a junior high and high school religion teacher and catechist in Catholic schools and parishes, I often used picture books to illustrate theological points. My favorite is The Yellow Star: the Legend of King Christian X of Denmark. Naturally, when I discovered the pro-life message in Horton, I wondered if it would be an appropriate teaching tool.
Having never read the book, my introduction to Horton Hears a Who came from a Christian Youth Theater production of Seussical: The Musical. When Horton first uttered the line, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” I had a new definition of irony.
I soon became aware of the intriguing debate that swirls around Horton’s recurring phrase. Others have articulated the situation better than I can. For example, this article comes from LifeSiteNews.com, “a portal of news stories about pro-life issues in Canada, the United States and the UK.” The article explains that, over the objections of Dr. Seuss himself and his widow, Mrs. Audrey Geisel, Horton has been used to support the pro-life movement.
According to Geisel biographer Philip Nel, Geisel threatened to sue a pro-life group for using his words on their stationery. In an ABC Booktalk interview, Nel does not address the pro-life message at all, suggesting instead that “you can read Horton Hears a Who in many ways, but one of the ways of reading Horton Hears a Who is a parable about democracy – that everyone needs to get involved for democracy to work.”
Mrs. Geisel has been vocal in her dislike for the co-opting of the phrase by pro-lifers, insisting according to this article that Geisel “never wanted Dr. Seuss characters used to advance any political purpose.”
Yet, prior to writing children’s books, Geisel had a lucrative career as a political cartoonist. This work, Nel feels, “had tremendous impact on the political children’s books, on the message books that he wrote after the Second World War – Horton Hears a Who, Yertle the Turtle, The Sneeches. I think it’s safe to say that he wouldn’t have written these books unless he had, during the war, written these political cartoons.”
To return to my question: Should the Geisels’ feelings regarding Horton matter?
Arundhati Roy, an Indian activist and writer, said in an interview, “For me, books are gifts. When I read a book, I accept it as a gift from an author. When I wrote [The God of Small Things], I presented it as a gift. The reader will do with it what they want.”
Moreover, Junipero Russo Tarascio, regarding Horton specifically, writes, “We may never know exactly what, if anything, Seuss had intended to communicate using Horton’s character (some have even suggested that the Whos are a symbol of racism, war, or children’s rights). This leaves the elephant’s story open to all forms of analysis and interpretation, depending on the specific moral values of the person reading it.” (Click here for the full article.)
So, to use or not to use? What discussion questions, if any, would work with the text? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.