Fuse #8

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Review of the Day: The White Elephant

The English language is chock full of funny terms and phrases. Raise the roof. Give me a hand. A fair weather friend. Yet few phrases, however creative, tend to lead to their very own children’s books. Leave it to Sid Fleischman then to change all of that with a wave of his hand. Unless you are directly involved in a white elephant gift exchange, you’ve probably had very little reason to ponder where the term even came from. With “The White Elephant”, however, they’ll learn what the term means, where it came from, and the book has the added bonus of containing the ultimate in luxury pets.

Run-Run, resident of Siam and owner of the clever elephant Walking Mountain, has a pretty good life. Get up. Use Walking Elephant to clear away tree stumps or wet down dusty roads. Eat. Relax. Go back to bed. It’s a simple life and it suits Run-Run just fine, though he sometimes wonders about what the world outside his tiny sphere must look like. Soon there’s little time to ponder such mysteries, however. As fate would have it, one day Walking Mountain accidentally douses Prince Noi, perhaps the idlest of the king’s princes, with a heavy flood of river water. As punishment, Noi sends Run-Run a gift that is also a curse. The boy is now sole owner of a beautiful and sacred white elephant. White elephants cannot be used for labor, of course, and their appetites are immense. Now Run-Run must balance the desires of an elephant who just wants to be useful against those of a prince.

I’m always pleased as punch to find a new early chapter children’s book. They don’t exactly have the publishing stats of fantasy novels, yet they’re of great importance to young readers. And Sid Fleischman has always been God’s gift to reluctant or early readers. I haven’t any statistics to prove this, but I suspect that his “The Whipping Boy” is the number one best read Newbery due in large part to the word “Boy” in the title and its enormously rewarding length (or lack thereof). So it should come as little surprise at this point to find Fleischman bestowing yet another well-written title on our shelves. Part of what I loved about this book was the fact that the elephants acted like elephants. They don’t go putting on clothes like Babar and start discussing the weather. No sir! Fleischman even avoids that most tempting of children’s literary techniques, the dream sequence. No easy outs for this fellow. Therefore, by the end of the book your kids will be able to discuss what elephants like to eat, why caring for their feet is important, and the sometimes deadly use of their tusks.

I’ve often said that it is far more difficult for an author to pen well-written early chapter fare than complex 400+ paged tomes. If brevity is a skill then Fleischman has it in spades. Not only do you understand each character’s personality, but the author even goes so far as to illustrate Run-Run’s dreams of seeing more than his own private corner of the world. More impressive still is a small section of the book wherein Run-Run has a private conversation with himself on whether or not to return the white elephant. Each sentence in the book gets its own line. “A white elephant must be obeyed. Mustn’t the prince, also, be obeyed? True. And he will be furious. But isn’t the prince always furious? Wipe your nose. I am. Well? I am thinking”. I don’t know about you, but I have definitely had interior monologues that proceeded at a pace very similar to the dialogue found here.

Oh just buy the book already. What more can I say? It’s smart and fun (let’s not forget the importance of fun in children’s books, okay?) and written beautifully. If more books of this stripe come out, elephants may soon become this season’s penguins (if you know what I mean). A must-have for any early chapter collection you know of.


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