Monday, November 1, 2010

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician's Elephant
by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Candlewick; 1 edition (September 8, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0763644109
Buy This Book on Amazon

Masterfully written by DiCamillo, The Magician's Elephant is an beautifully crafted, enchanting allegorical fable about faith, hope, love and magic, centered around young Peter Augustus Duchene's search for the little sister he is convinced is still alive. Set in the late 1800's, orphaned Peter lives with a senile soldier who sends him out with a coin to buy fish and bread. But instead Peter uses the money to see a fortune teller in town. The fortune teller instructs Peter to "Follow the elephant" and he will be led to his sister. That same night, a local magician inadvertently conjures an elephant (rather than a bouquet of lilies) during his performance. The inexplicable appearance of this mysterious elephant captures the attention of the entire town, especially young Peter. He knows the animal is more than coincidental- it is the key to reuniting his family and finding the life of love he knows is waiting for him.

The world created within these pages is at times rather dark and yet never emotionally cold. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, every page has the slight shimmer of underlying magic, intangible and yet unignorable. DiCamillo's poetic prose shines in what is ultimately a timeless fairy tale; dusting her characters, setting, and story with just enough magic to show us all the power of asking "What If?"

"Magic is always impossible," said the magician. "It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic."

I commend DiCamillo for the heart and truth she pours into her novels, never writing down to her audience but instead asking them to rise up to meet her. Reading this book, I was consistently struck by countless poignant and beautiful stand alone passages of text that left lasting impressions on my mind, including these:

"No. Not enough. Never enough. We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?"

"It is a bad thing to have love and nowhere to put it." 

I am a huge fan of Yoko Tanaka's work (The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children, Sparrow Girl, Theodosia Series) and here she is a perfect compliment to DiCamillo's strangely surreal story. Although black and white, the illustrations are rich with a sensitive warmth, compassion and an appropriately mysterious atmospheric tonality. The style of Tanaka's characters is perfect for this story, as she creates memorable characters that are abstracted just enough to become universally relatable.

Worth noting is how good this book truly looks and feels in your hands. In an age when children's books are contending with the onslaught of digital media, books like these should remind us all why printed books will never really be threatened. A book is an experience. Each element of design comes together to create a carefully considered, fully rendered world. The relatively small size of the book, the wide margins and small blocks of text enhance the quiet, intimate experience of reading it. The cover is simple and clean, allowing the magical cover illustration and unique hand-tweaked title font to take center stage. The antique styled typeface (Pabst Oldstyle) further helps to shape the whimsical feeling of the story. Quite a well-designed gem of a book.

Although targeted to the middle grade market, this is a short, highly satisfying novel to be appreciated by readers of all ages. Not overly sophisticated (that is to say, no more complex than classical fairy tales) to be read to and enjoyed by very young readers, this lyrical and beautiful story can truly find meaning with readers of all ages.

Reading this book was particularly important to me as it captivated my imagination and inspired me to expand my own ideas of what a story and book can (and should) be. A magical world has been created in which logical explanation is impossible, thus we must follow our hearts and let our selves be lead on faith. Between its covers we experience love, magic, and hope, which reminds us that in our own lives we too must journey to follow our own Elephant and our dreams.

"It is, after all, a wonderful thing to dream of an elephant," she said to Leo," and then to have the dream come true."
This is one of my all-time favorite middle grade masterpieces. With an open mind and a willing heart, it will not disappoint.


Adelaida said...

I'm in love with all DiCamillo's books. They always make me cry; it's like a katharsis.

Courtney Autumn Martin said...

Absolutely. They make me feel warm and fuzzy in a way no other books really do.

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