Published 1940 Random House
The New York Times Review:
“A moral is a new thing to find in a Dr. Seuss book, but it doesn’t interfere much with the hilarity with which he juggles an elephant up a tree. To an adult the tale seems a little forced in comparison to his first grand yarns, less inevitable in its nonsense, but neither young nor old are going to quibble with the fantastic comedy of his pictures.”
The story opens with a lazy bird named Mayzie complaining about having to sit all day on her nest. She considers it work and wants to go rest and fly free. At that moment Horton the Elephant passes her tree. Mayzie convinces Horton to sit on her egg while she takes a vacation, promising to be back soon.
Horton props up the tree so it can bear his weight then he climbs up and “carefully, tenderly, gently” he sat on the nest. “And he sat, and he sat, and he sat, and he sat…” He sits through a storm while we see that Mayzie is enjoying herself in the sun on Palm Beach. She has decided she’s having so much fun that “she’s NEVER going back to her nest!”
Horton sits on the nest through Autumn and Winter, but he doesn’t desert the egg because,
“I meant what I said
And I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent!”
Even after his own friends taunt and tease him he does not leave the nest. He is even threatened by hunters, but he does not back down! The hunters decided not to shoot him, because the sight of him up a tree on a nest is so amazing and wonderful that they figure they can sell him to the circus for money. So they build a wagon and cage and drag him through the jungle and up over the mountains to the sea and put him on a ship.
He is brought to New York and starts to travel with the circus. One day the circus travels pretty close to Palm Beach and Mayzie, flying by, decides to stop and have some fun. When she sees Horton she is shocked and Horton tries to speak, but all of a sudden the egg starts to hatch! Horton is so excited he shouts “My egg! WHY, IT’S HATCHING!”, but Mayzie, seeing that the hard work is all done, wants her egg back and clams that Horton stole it from her.
Horton starts to back away with a sad and heavy heart, but at that instant the egg burst apart! and out comes a little elephant with wings. And everyone exclaims that that is the way it should be since Horton was so faithful and diligent! So they send him and his little baby Elephant Bird home Happy one hundred percent!
This is where things really start feeling like the Dr. Seuss that everyone knows. It is the first story where the main character is not a human and it breaks away from the classic fairy tale structure that The 500 Hats, Lady Godivas, and The King’s Stilts all follow. I really like the way Judith and Neil Morgan put it in Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel,
“Forsaking his absorption with the rigidity of classic fairy tales, Ted had unleashed his imagination.”
Random House added blue ink to the red that we saw in his past three books creating sky and water for a more full setting. Seuss goes back to verse which he had not written in since And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. He also interrupts the rhyme between pages to build suspense and keep the reader turning pages.
“I’d take a vacation, fly off for a rest
If I could find someone to stay on my nest!
If I could find someone, I’d fly away – free….”
—FLIP THE PAGE—
“Then Horton, the Elephant, passed by her tree.”
He also plays with italics and caps to create better emphasis and voice.
“Did he run?
He did not!
HORTON STAYED ON THAT NEST!
He held his head high
And he threw out his chest”
The inspiration for this book has been dramatized and argued by different biographers. The romantic version is that Seuss had drawn an image of an elephant sitting and a separate image of a tree. They were both drawn on transparent paper and at one point the wind caught the elephant drawing and it landed on top of the tree drawing. Seuss thought it was so delightful that he decided to write a story about it.
Charles D. Cohen, author of The Seuss, The Whole Seuss, and Nothing But The Seuss, points out that Seuss had been drawing images of animals and even specifically elephants in trees for many years.
- 1927 Whale in tree for Judge magazine
- 1929 Dog hatching eggs in chimney for Judge magazine
- 1930 Pair of flying elephants for Life magazine
- 1931 Walrus in a nest in a tree for Judge magazine
- 1934 Elephant trying to hatch egg and crushing it for Life magazine
- 1938 Short story about elephant named Matilda that finds an abandoned egg and decides to hatch it and protect it. The moral of this story is the opposite of Horton’s experience. The end of Matilda’s story simply states “Moral: Don’t go around hatching other folks eggs.” Matilda called insane and other animals make fun of her and even her hatchling screams and flies away without so much as a thank you.
So, it is unlikely that a gust of wind was his only push toward creating this story. It seems to have been something that was on his mind for a long time.
It was turned into a 20 minute short by Merry Melodies in 1942.
This was the first of Seuss’ books to be turned into an animated feature film in 1992 narrated by Billy Crystal.
The book was rejected by 7 British publishers before it was finally picked up by Hamish Hamilton in 1942.
I’m gonna have to say the final lines of the book are my favorite:
” ‘My goodness! My gracious!’ they shouted. ‘MY WORD!
It’s something brand new!
IT’S AN ELEPHANT BIRD!!
And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!
Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat!
He meant what he said
And he said what he meant…..’
…. And they sent him home
One hundred per cent!”
It is always nice when the hero of the story gets what he deserves. Also, I personally really want to adopt a child and it is just such a beautiful message that after nursing and taking care of this egg that it hatched to be like the animal that took cared for it, but it is also a completely unique creature that still has aspects of its biological parent.
I think my favorite image actually does not even have poor Horton in it. So far in Seuss’ books we haven’t seen much of his wonderfully silly and creative animal illustrations. We have seen elephants before in And to Think I Saw it On Mulberry Street, we have seen plenty of horses in Seven Lady Godivas and there are cats and birds in The King’s Stilts, but in this one image alone there is a Giraffe, Kangaroos, Hippo, Moose, Squirrel, Lion and what I’m guessing is a goat or gazelle maybe?
But I also love the image of the the Elephant Bird that Horton worked so hard to hatch!
This fact is actually directly related to Horton Hatches the Egg. I think it is such a great insight into Seuss’ personality and silliness. Here is a letter he wrote to a friend, Louise Bonino (who is mentioned at the end of the letter) about his thoughts on his new book, Horton Hatches the Egg:
“The new book is coming along with a rapidity that leaves me breathless. It is a beautiful thing. The funniest juvenile ever written. I mean, being written. Never before have I stood before myself and pointed so proudly, saying, “Genius, you are.” I feel certain it will sell well over a million…Miller will hang himself with joy to every lamp post in town…Haas and Klopfer will buy Tahiti and Bali respectively. Commins will buy Russia. Cerf will buy Hollywood. Louise Bonino will buy a negligee covered with sequins and umaluts and find nizzard Maribou….PS: I like my new book.”
Thanks for reading,
Jack St. Rebor