Elephants in children’s books

Elephant Rescue: A True Story by Louisa Leaman
Published by Orion

I read this aloud to Grade 2 and they were captivated by the stories of Nina and Pinkie, two elephants rescued by the Born Free Foundation. Read the opening paragraph and you too will want to know more about Nina, a baby elephant found alone:

Beneath a fierce sun, above the red earth of the Tanzanian plain, a pair of vultures circled over a baby elephant. For several hours, she had been huddling beside a thorn bush, not far from a muddy watering hole.
Where she’d come from and why she was alone at the watering hole was a mystery. She was no more than six months old, so she should have been with her mother. (15)

The class avidly followed Nina’s story and learnt that she was found by a well meaning man but he kept her alone in captivity for 27 years until he finally realised she deserved a better life. So, he contacted the Born Free Foundation who came up with the expertise, detailed plans and money to be able to move her to the remote and enormous Mkomazi National Reserve about 250 kilometres away.

We discussed this picture for quite a long time. This connected very well to their PYP Habitats unit.

Many elephants, when kept in captivity, adopt repetitive behaviours. They pace or rock or shake their heads. Some people say they go mad (Leaman 32).

The children were also interested in how to transport an elephant and we particularly liked this picture:

“It is important that relocated elephants like their new environment, otherwise they may trek all the way back to where they came from” (65)

And, of course this picture made everyone happy:

There is a whole series of Born Free Rescue books and they are all engaging. They are particularly good for students who don’t like fiction but still need a readable, interesting story that has a ‘beginning, middle and end’.  Highly recommended.


The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

This is a strange fairytale, set in an unnamed Eastern (I guess) European country in a time of countesses and emperors, travelling magicians and old soldiers. Ten year old orphan Peter, soldier in training, is told by a fortune teller that if he wants to find his sister he must follow the elephant. The elephant is a real beast that due to a miscast magic spell, has fallen through the theatre’s ceiling into the lap of audience member Madam LaVaughn. Feeling deprived of attention, as society speaks of nothing else but the magician, the elephant and the broken legs of Madam LaVaughn, Countess Quintet installs the elephant in her ballroom. The elephant feels nothing but pain and loneliness as the towns people parade through the ballroom

‘…touching her, pulling at her, leaning against her, praying and singing, the elephant stood broken-hearted.

There were many things she did not understand.

Where were her brothers and sister? Her mother?

Where were the long grass and the bright sun? Where were the hot days and the dark pools of shade and the cool nights?

The world had become too cold and confusing and chaotic to bear.

She stopped reminding herself of her name.

She decided that she would like to die.’ (125)

Fortunately, Peter follows his destiny and as the elephant is returned to where she belongs he finds his sister and a new family.

‘The fate of the elephant rested absolutely in the hands of the Countess Quintet, who had made a very generous contribution indeed to the policeman’s fund.’ (69)

‘He forgot about everything except for the terrible truth of what he saw, what he understood in the elephant’s eyes.
She was heartbroken.
She had to go home.
The elephant had to go home or she would surely die.’ (135)

The review in the New York Times by Adam Gopnik says “that it is more a book for quiet corners and Christmas evenings than for bedtimes” and I have to agree. This is a solid recommendation for children wanting a magical story with plenty of atmosphere but they need good comprehension skills to understand the significance of all the characters. The illustrations by Yoko Tanaka are superb and help to tell the story. The elephant is clearly in distress ‘ ‘ the elephant felt a terrible pain in her chest. It was too hard for her to breathe; the world seemed too small’ (82) and the moral of the story is clear: release the elephant back to her home and family and there is a very good chance that we will all be happier for it.

‘Peter put his hand on the elephant. He let it rest there for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said to her.’ (194)

Stripe Island by tupera tupera
Published by Thames & Hudson

 I alway make an effort to find books in translation and include as many authors from other countries as I possible. tupera tupera is the pseudonym of Japanese artists Tatsuya Kameyama and Atsuko Nakagwa. The story is about Stripe Island which is stripey as are the people, animals, landscape and everything on the island (oh to have one person made up of spots that would have been a great idea so a child can find ‘the odd one out’). Anyhow, I didn’t have any idea that an elephant was in this book but there is one, looking most unhappy, being lifted up by a strong man. Does this effect the way a child will see elephants – could he not have been roaming free with his family of striped elephants?  I am not overly impressed with this book due to the absolute lack of spots – where is the tension, the drama, the story? Lower grades will no doubt delight in the colours and the use (overuse) of stripes. Adults may smile as it is national pride day on Stripe Island and there is to be a Festival of Stripes. This one is certainly going on display during Pride week.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

W is for Whale

Follow on Pinterest