Oh, what a pleasure to recommend a new Kate DiCamillo book. Don’t be fooled by it’s being targeted to middle readers, which means kids between 10 and 13. The Magician’s Elephant is a book for anyone who loves a good story superbly written. It also gives me a chance to strongly encourage adult readers to seriously look at children’s books. DiCamillo is near the top of my list of writers for young people (from picture books to middle readers) whose work adults will find immensely satisfying.
If you’re not sure about committing time to non-adult books, start with DiCamillo’s, The Tiger Rising, then move onto The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, but don’t miss her Christmas picture book (a gem), Great Joy. I’m often amused when friends and customers ask why I would expect them to read children’s literature. I think that if the writing is good, why let a publisher’s marketing department select one’s reading material?
And so we come to DiCamillo’s most recent book, The Magician’s Elephant, a small, but rich telling of a tale that wastes no time in pulling the reader into the story. “At the end of the century before last, in the market square of the city of Baltese, there stood a boy with a hat on his head and a coin in his hand.” The boy is Peter Augustus Duchene and he is as dear a boy as any reader, of any age, could ask for. The elephant, though key to the tale, does not have a name. This can be interpreted as meaning that if you are pivotal in the lives of many people, as this elephant is, maybe a name is not important. It is not so much what the elephant does, as what her magical presence means to those she touches and those who touch her. But the magician, upon causing this poor elephant to fall through the roof of the opera house in Baltese, is imprisoned for most of the story.
Leo Matienne, a wise and caring fellow, is a policeman who has the soul of a poet, “and because of this, he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers.” Questions such as, “What if? and Why not? and Could it possibly be?” were posed by this good man throughout the tale. There is much to be accomplished in DiCamillo’s story: a most unlikely reunion between two orphaned siblings; the healing of a gargoyle-sculpting stonecutter; the freedom of an imprisoned magician; and the taking back of a magical act that impossibly occurred in the first place.
DiCamillo’s writing is as fluid and mature as any seasoned storyteller’s writing should be. Those are some of the characteristics that move her writing into the world of literature. Words such as “presaged,” “wrest,” “reciprocal,” “largesse,” “elucidating,” and “respite” are used with such unassuming aplomb that any parent or grandparent reading this story aloud will immediately realize that DiCamillo does not “dummy down” for her marketed readership. In this day of tweeted messages that come to us punched out in minimalist word use, it is a heady experience to read an author who loves the language in which she writes.
The Magician’s Elephant is illustrated by Yoko Tanaka in muted black and white drawings that charmingly add to the almost dream-like quality of the tale. DiCamillo stories often deal with a world in which its characters are not afraid to question those people and events that wear them down, and this tale is no different. Will Peter listen to his heart? Will the injured countess find room for forgiveness? Does the policeman’s wife dare hope again for a family of her own? Welcome to Kate DiCamillo’s world.