Magician’s Elephant is mesmerizing without sleight of hand

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2009; 201 pages.

Peter Augustus Duchene.  His name sounds like the son of royalty, yet he is a 10 year old orphan living at the whim of an insane man who served in the military with his father.  Peter’s family is gone; all dead.  Yet somehow he hopes that this is not true.  What is he to make of the images of him holding a baby sister, of his mother urging him to swear to take care of her always?  One cold, dark night, the boy uses food money to ask a fortuneteller if his sister lives and how he may find her.  The mysterious answer leads him to believe he has wasted his money: An elephant!  An elephant will lead him to her.  There are no elephants in the European city of Beltese, or are there?  Circumstances build, when a magician conjures an elephant that crushes the legs of the city’s leading socialite.  Circumstances build when a series of unrelated citizens dream of, or care for, or follow the elephant.  In the end, Peter Augustus Duchene is reunited with his sister and the other denizens of Baltese discover their hearts’ desires when they help the elephant return to her home.

This allegory of interdependence is magically woven.  Vignettes of characters are so eloquently written that I felt I knew them, every one, in just a few pages.  Even Count Quintet, only mentioned in a few paragraphs, is fully developed.  DiCamillo is at her best when writing about people and relationships, and this book is the best of the best.  I savored every page, every description and every relationship.  However, I think that younger readers will be lost in the eloquence.  I believe this book is intended for an older audience, those with a bit more experience to understand the interdependence we require to live.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the eloquence of Yoko Tanaka.  Although the illustrations were done in acrylic, they appear as pen and ink.  Tanaka’s use of light and dark, the counterpoint of shadow and brilliance, is mesmerizing.  My eye was immediately drawn to Peter’s face in the town square, for instance, because his bright, innocent countenance was fully developed in a few brush strokes.  This book is dramatically enhanced by Tanaka’s vision of the world of Peter Augustus Duchene.

I am a fan of Kate DiCamillo.  With every book, her ability to create characters that are magical beings, larger than life, increases.  I believe this story is her best to date.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-9 (and above, as an allegory)

magicianselephantCover Art: Tanaka’s image of the magician conjuring an elephant crashing through the opera house ceiling is understood once the story is read.  I’m not sure that it would draw an unfamiliar reader into the story.  However, the font is reminiscent of fairy tales and fantasy fiction, so perhaps its golden title will intrigue browsers.  I think readers will have to be looking for this book.

Suggested Reading List: The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

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  • Today's Daily Brain Teaser (Jul 22, 2017)
    Hidden Category Remove a letter from each of the words below and rearrange the remaining letters to form new words. The 10 words will all fall into a certain category. For example, given the words DEAR, ANGRY, and RENEGE, you could drop the "A" in DEAR to get RED, drop the "N" in ANGRY to get GRAY, and drop an "E" in RENEGE to g […]
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