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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Geneviève Côté
Kids Can Press,(September 2006)
It was a quiet day, a day like any other day, when George burst out of his front door shouting at the top of his lungs, "Help! Help! There's an elephant in my house!"
A small crowd gathered around George.
"Elephants don't break into houses," someone giggled.
"But this one did—it REALLY did! When I went home there was an elephant sitting on my couch! It was watching TV and eating my chocolate chip cookies!" insisted George.
His best friend, Pip, shook his head. "Elephants don't watch TV, and they certainly don't eat chocolate chip cookies. You were probably out in the sun too long. Why don't you go home and get some sleep?"
"Maybe Pip is right," George said to himself as he slowly walked away.
--What Elephant? by Geneviève Côté, p. 1-3.
You know that saying, "There's an elephant in the room"? Well, in this picture book, there really is. George comes home to find an elephant in his house, and no one believes him, so George starts to distrust his own perceptions and ignores the elephant. Things just keep getting worse and worse in George's house, with the elephant breaking his furniture, eating all his food, and his friends insisting they don't see anything—until finally someone admits they see the elephant, and George is freed from the situation.
This is a funny take on a physical manifestation of an elephant in the room—or of a problem that no one talks about. What Elephant? makes it clear, in an entertaining and funny manner, that it's far better to trust your own perceptions and instincts no matter what other people say or who denies them, because your instincts are often right.
The story is a great one; it is charming, deep, and intriguing—but there were a number of problems in the writing that, at least for me, detracted from the story. The text feels overly long; there are some areas where the writer could have left descriptions or details to the illustrations, allowing the text and illustrations to work more in tandem. Some of the dialogue does not feel believable or sound authentic. There are also a lot of speech tags that I find distracting (instead of "said," which can seem invisible, there's "giggled," "insisted," "sighed," "worried," etc.). Still, the story itself is fun and meaningful, and readers will enjoy laughing at the antics the elephant gets up to, and the way George attempts to ignore the elephant.
When no one believes George, the reader may doubt, along with George, as to whether or not there really is an elephant in George's house. This helps build suspense; readers will want to keep turning the pages to see if the elephant is real—as well as what the elephant does.
There is a lot of humor in the text, most especially through George's attempts to ignore the elephant, but also through the things the elephant does (snores loudly, breaks George's couch by sitting on it, slathers coconut-scented suntan lotion on herself and bathes in the garden, blows her nose on the bed sheets, etc.). There is also humor and a satisfaction when, in the closing, the reader discovers that George was indeed right, there really was an elephant in his house.
There are subtle messages woven into the story that readers will pick up on, such as that if someone is not believed or listened to, they may doubt themselves, even though they are right; that it's important to trust your intuition; and that things that are ignored do not go away by themselves.
The ending is strong and fun, and lets the reader know that it's all going to repeat again (just slightly differently), giving the story an endless feel, and increasing the enjoyment.
Côté's illustrations are sketchy, at times grainy, with triangles for character noses, and curly scribbles with a dash of color for hair. Bright colors, especially blues, greens, and yellows, are repeated throughout the book and used greatly in backgrounds, bringing a light-hearted feel and visually drawing the book together. They also help to balance out the large gray of the elephant. The white of the page is used frequently: for skin tone (for white and asian characters, with splotches of color on their cheeks), for highlights and lighting, for pattern and design, and many times behind the text, and this also helps bring a sense of lightness to the book.
The lines are free and expressive, and body language is used well. There are also some cartoon elements used, such as hats flying off in surprise, and slight exaggeration of features or size (such as the size of the elephant). There's an interesting, almost old-fashioned feel to the inside of George's house, with its lace tablecloth and curtains, lounge couch, and collection of ceramic teapots—but this adds character and interest.
Many of the illustrations take up one spread, bleeding right to the edges of the pages, while others take up a page (and once two illustrations per page). This brings some visual variation.
There is humor in many of the illustrations, such as the elephant taking up most of the room on the couch and George trying to push her off while he's watching TV, and the elephant standing on her head reading while George vacuums around her and ignores her.
What Elephant? takes something very important—that when we ignore something, it only gets worse—and turns it into a picture book that never preaches or overtly instructs, but instead entertains. The book gently encourages the reader to believe in and listen to themselves, even when others insist on something else, and to face problems when they occur. This is a meaningful, thoughtful book that will encourage discussion. It's definitely worth checking out.
-Added March 2007
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