My first introduction to Horton the Elephant was as a child, when I saw the 1970's cartoon version of HORTON HEARS A WHO! directed by Chuck Jones. I honestly don't think I saw the picture book until adulthood, when I read it aloud to my own children. The book HORTON HEARS A WHO! was written in 1954 by Theodor Geisel, famously known as Dr. Seuss.
This story was one of the most riveting and heart-wrenching of my childhood. I sat on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to become of all the "WHOs" on the tiny dust speck that Horton spied blowing past him in the air. His attention was drawn to it after he'd heard a small noise, a "very faint yelp". I feared for whoever was making the noise, as giant Horton, the tender hearted Elephant, tried to convince a "sour Kangaroo" and her "humpf-ing" young Kangaroo that there was a person on the speck. His convictions were met by the young one's voice from the pouch, asserting:
"Why, that speck is as small as the head of a pin. A person on that?…why, there never has been!"
News then spread as Horton walked through the jungle, trying to protect the little dust speck's inhabitants on top of a clover. He alone could hear the tiny, quiet voices. As I watched the cartoon I was drawn in - first to Horton's skeptical, jungle world - then to the little unseen world of "Who-ville", which I'd get a "glimpse" of through the voice of the thankful Mayor, describing what was happening down inside the dust speck, as he pleaded with Horton for help.
When the "Wickersham Brothers" (giant tree monkeys) heard about Horton's clover that was cradling the tiny dust speck, they snatched it away from him. It ended up in the beak of an Eagle, who is asked: "Will you kindly get rid of this thing?" (At this point in the cartoon, I was feeling a bit stressed!) Here came the first climax -- the Eagle dropped the clover:
"And at 6:56 the next morning he did it.
It sure was a terrible place that he hid it.
He let that small clover drop somewhere inside
Of a great patch of clovers a hundred miles wide!"And Horton, my hero, what did he do? He searched. Clover by clover, until he found it. And then what did they do? (the Kangaroo, and "Wickersham Brothers and dozens Of Wickersham Uncles and Wickersham Cousins And Wickersham In-Laws"?) Climax Number Two: they tried to rope and cage poor Horton and drop the clover in "a hot steaming kettle of Beezle-nut Oil.!" As a child, I remember being horrified.
“Boil it?…” gasped Horton!
“Oh, that you can’t do! It’s all full of persons!
They’ll prove it to you!”Brave Horton pleaded with them to make themselves heard. Only he could hear the WHOs crying in fear, "We are here! We are here! We are here!" The faithful Elephant was then beaten and mauled, as he was put in a cage. As a mom, I remember blinking back the tears as he calls out:
“Don’t give up! I believe in you all
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!”
Did I mention there's a Climax #3? Finally, after encouraging all the WHOs to make as much noise as they can, the Mayor (rushing around, trying to get everyone involved) ready to give up, finds little Jo-Jo, who lets out a "YOPP!" and breaks the barrier of sound - just as the clover is about to be dropped into the hot oil! So in the end, Who-ville is saved "by the smallest of all".