Thursday, February 4, 2010

Children's Book Review: The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Title:  The Magician's Elephant
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Yoko Tanaka
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: children's / middle-grade
Hardback: 208 pages
ISBN: 0763644102
Summary:  In her eagerly awaited new novel, Kate DiCamillo conjures a haunting fable about trusting the unexpected — and making the extraordinary come true.
What if? Why not? Could it be?  When a fortuneteller's tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller's mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be narrated by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

Overall rating: 7/10
To buy this book:  Powell's | Amazon | The Book Depository | IndieBound
Add this book to your:  Goodreads | Shelfari | LibraryThing | Visual Bookshelf

The Magician's Elephant is a sweet tale of hope set in a world colored by grief and monotony.  Yoko Tanaka's bleak black and white illustrations are quiet and expressive and seem well-suited to the cold and wintry atmosphere of the story.  Readers who liked The Tale of Despereaux may find this book a slower, more-predictable adventure, but they will still enjoy Kate DiCamillo's fable-like prose & her characters filled with heart and hopefulness.
What I liked:
  • The quirky cast of characters.  Kate DiCamillo has a knack for revealing her character's dreams and fears in a straightforward and touching way, and she succeeds in sharing the key experiences that shaped their personalities & attitudes.
  • The idea of an elephant inexplicably crashing through the ceiling of an opera house is explored in a way that reflects both the sadness and the heartfelt wish that precipitated her arrival.  That side of the storyline also touches on the lack of compassion in keeping a wild animal in captivity for human entertainment, which I really appreciated.
  • Virtually all of the main & supporting character's are compelling in some way & you'll want to see each of their dreams realized and their hopes validated.
  • Some of the bit players with the tiniest of rolls were very entertaining.  For example, the captain of police and the Countess Quintet play very small rolls, but they are both memorable and amusing.
What I wished:
  • The story had been less predictable.  Even our five year old was certain about the story's eventual outcome after reading the first couple of chapters.  And predictability can be a deal-breaker in our household.  Even if the characters are charming or pitiable  &  the initial concept is unusual, predictability can make a short & relatively entertaining book seem too long.  Predictability can also lead us to be overly critical of minor characters who seem unnecessary to the plot as well as any scenes that do not actively drive the plot forward.    
  • Peter is a tender-hearted young boy who is used to being lonely & quietly grieving for the family he has lost.  Those qualities define him & as readers we long for him to find both his sister & a real family, but I wanted to see more layers of Peter's personality explored and more changes becoming evident in him as the story progressed.
I liked The Magician's Elephant and would recommend it to young and old readers alike.  It will particularly appeal to readers with a fondness for reaffirming tales of hope and faith.  It is populated by characters who have each seen their share of heartbreak and live in a fairly monotonous, gloomy world.  But despite their disappointments, many of these individuals maintain a spark of hope and a longing for the seemingly impossible, which ultimately brings them together to explore "What if?" instead of settling for what is.  

To read more about The Magician's Elephant visit the book's official website.
Author links: Kate DiCamillo's website | journal 
Illustrator links: Yoko Tanaka's website


Sarah Laurence said...

I love how you included your son's reaction and placed this book in the context of the author's writing. Excellent review! It's so nice to connect with you!

Violet said...

Thank you! :)

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