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The Magician's Elephant

New Novel for Kids 9-13 by Kate DiCamillo

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

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Cover art of the children's book The Magicians Elephant
Candlewick Press
Kate DiCamillo is a consummate storyteller and The Magician's Elephant engages the reader from the first sentence. While the novel is filled with intriguing and unusual characters, it is the story that is all important. And the story of the magician's elephant is full of questions.

The Story

The story takes place in the imaginary city of Baltese at "the end of the century before last." On the surface, story is about ten-year-old orphan, Peter Augustus Duchene, and his search for his younger sister, whom his guardian, a mentally ill war veteran, has told him died at birth. The dramatic story begins with Peter learning from a fortune teller that his sister is alive and that in order to find her, he "must follow the elephant." What elephant?

The anonymous narrator advances the story through the experiences and points of view of a variety of characters, including Peter, his guardian, the magician whose great trick ends in catastrophe, the elephant the magician unexpectedly conjures up at the end of his performance, the noblewoman the elephant lands on, her manservant, the small policeman Leo Matienne, his wife and Peter's sister, Adele. What happens when Peter and some of the others begin to ask, "What if?," "Why not?" and "Could it be?" As kindly Leo Matienne, says, "How will the world change if we do not question it?" How each person is affected and how it all ends makes for a fascinating, and a very satisfying, story.

The confusion and the mystery in the story is enhanced by Yoko Tanaka's odd and somewhat mysterious illustrations. While the artwork, rendered in dense tones of gray, looks like pencil drawings on watercolor paper, the artist actually used acrylics. The gray figures look almost like dolls rather than humans and the more the reader looks into the dark pictures, the more that can be seen, just as the more that the reader makes inferences and puts things together, the more that can be understood about the underlying theme of the story: the need for love and belonging.

The Magician's Elephant is not just the story of a boy's search for his sister, it's about having faith, believing in the seemingly impossible, and the connections between people, as well as the need, and the quest, for love and belonging.

The Author Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo's first children's book, Because of Winn-Dixie, was a 2001 Newbery Honor Book and her second book, The Tiger Rising, was a National Book Award finalist. Kate DiCamillo was awarded the 2004 Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in children's literature, for her novel The Tale of Despereaux.

After writing these three novels for tweens, Kate DiCamillo introduced a beginning reader book series for younger readers. The award-winning Mercy Watson series features humorous stories about a pet pig whose yen for buttered toast gets her into lots of trouble. Kate DiCamillo has also written several picture books, including Great Joy, a Christmas picture book, and another novel, The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane. For more about Kate DiCamillo, see my article Newbery Medal Winner Kate DiCamillo.

The Illustrator: Yoko Tanaka

The illustrator of The Magician’s Elephant, Yoko Tanaka, has illustrated other children’s novels, as well as a picture book. The novels include The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos and Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. Yoko Tanaka also illustrated the picture book Sparrow Girl.

My Recommendation

I recommend The Magician’s Elephant for 9 to 13 year old readers and as a read aloud at home or in the classroom for ages 8 and up. At 208 pages, it’s a good book for kids who are ready for a book that asks them to draw inferences and make connections but that is not too long or complex. The fortune teller’s mysterious message and what follows are unusual enough to attract some reluctant readers, as well. (Candlewick Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780763644109)
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