Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo, Kate. The Magician’s Elephant. Candlewick Press, 2009. (September) Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka.

In an allegorical novella reminiscent of an Eastern European fairy tale, young Peter is told by a fortune teller that an elephant will lead him to his long-lostsister. As Peter hadn’t even been certain that his sister was alive, this is excellent news, especially considering his grim life as a sort of apprentice to his guardian, an unbalanced old soldier who has cared for Peter since his parents died.

The only catch is that thre is no elephant in the town of Baltese – until, that is, a magician causes one to fall through the roof of the Bliffendorf Opera House. The sudden and anomalous presence of this elephant has a profound effect on all the people of Baltese, but most especially on Peter, his sister Adele, and a small and eccentric assortment of quietly anguished people.

Everything about this slim tale, from the quaint font style (Pabst Oldstyle) to the warm yet somber acrylic illustrations to the almost allegorical appearance of the elephant, brings to mind absurdist Russian/Eastern European tales like Gogol’s The Nose or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which bizarre situations highlight truths about the human condition.

I cut my teeth on those kind of stories and so this tale of the fulfillment of heretofore unsuspected or buried hopes and desires felt familiar and comfortable. The writing is smooth, with just enough texture to keep one’s full attention, and the few illustrations I saw in my ARC copy were atmospheric and terrific. However, I can’t see many kids cottoning to the old-fashioned, almost mystical tone of this story, and the characters, including young Peter, remain strangely flat and enigmatic. There was altogether a distant, cool mood to the story that probably won’t appeal to kids who loved The Tale of Despereaux or Because of Wynn Dixie. Still, kids who persevere will be rewarded by an odd yet moving story.

Recommended for old souls in grades 4 – 7.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I'm way past 7th grade, but I'm gonna go for it!