Engle, Margarita. Singing with Elephants. Viking, 2022. 978-0-593-20669-0. 217 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6.
This Newbery Honor and Pura Belpre Award winning author’s latest offering is a historical novel in free verse set in 1947 California. A young girl called Oriol is finding life in Santa Barbara challenging. Her veterinarian parents, her abuelita, and her older sister came to the United States from Cuba. After the death of her beloved grandmother, Oriol has found it harder to cope with her classmates who call her a smelly “zoo beast” and mock her accent and appearance. One day she meets her neighbor Gabriela Mistral, the celebrated Latin poet (la poeta) and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriela becomes a mentor to Oriol and encourages her to deal with her feelings by writing poetry. The young girl learns about a pregnant elephant under her parents’ care at a movie star’s ranch. Her encounters with the elephant inspire her writing, and the family is thrilled when the elephant delivers twins, Song and Dance. When one of the baby elephants goes missing, suspicion falls on the actor, who believes he can teach the animal to do tricks and even talk. Oriol is determined to reunite Dance with her mother and brother and needs to enlist the help of the community to save her and other animals from abuse. In helping the animals, Oriol comes to realize her own strength. This uplifting lyrical text is peppered throughout with Spanish words. The author’s note discusses the life of Gabriela Mistral, who was also a peace activist and teacher. One of her poems is included.
THOUGHTS: A gem of a book, which will surely delight readers. Highly recommended for elementary collections.
Historical Fiction Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member Novel in Verse
Lai, Remy. Star the Elephant. Henry Holt and Co., 2022. 978-1-250-78499-5. 112 p. $13.99. Grades 2-5.
Author/illustrator Remy Lai opens a new series, Surviving the Wild, with the tale of Star the Elephant. Five-year old Star is growing up under the watchful eyes of his mother, aunt (the matriarch), and extended herd. When food becomes scarce, Star’s mom and auntie decide to search for a new home. After a long swim they reach an island with plenty to eat but also the troubling presence of humans. While attempting to escape from two men, Star becomes separated from his family. Fortunately for Star, these humans are working diligently to make the world safer for elephants, and the story ends on a hopeful note. “The True Story Behind Star’s Adventure,” which closes out this early reader graphic novel, includes tips to help protect elephants’ habitat from deforestation. Remy Lai fills every page with colored pencil lines depicting equatorial foliage, a handful of people, and (of course) the incredible elephants!
THOUGHTS: The Surviving the Wild series continues with Rainbow the Koala and Sunny the Shark (both 2022). Between the adorable animals and their sometimes fraught adventures, readers will tear through these!
Andreae, Giles. Free to Be Elephant Me. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-734270. Unpaged. $16.91. Grades PreK-2.
Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, the duo behind Giraffes Can’t Dance, teamed up to create the story of elephant Num-Num, a little elephant searching for his special gifts. It’s tradition for all young elephants to perform in front of king Elephant Mighty to showcase their talents and be given an elephant name like Elephant Noisy to the little one who can trumpet loudest or Elephant Strong to the little one who can rip a tree right from the ground. Num-Num doesn’t believe that he has any special talents and after a dismal performance and an unkind mocking by the king, he leaves and travels far away where he makes a new home by a watering hole. Over time, Num-Num makes many friends who assure him that he is perfect the way he is and that his talents involve being kind and simply being himself. Num-Num, supported by many animal friends, returns to the elephants and tells Elephant Mighty that he’d like to be called Elephant Me because “…the hardest thing sometimes is just to be you and to know being you is enough.” Elephant Mighty seems to truly understand and even reveals that he often feels stifled by his name and role, and the tale ends happily with a dance-filled celebration.
THOUGHTS: A simple, attractive rhyming story that may help convey ideas of self-acceptance to little readers.
Tomsic, Kim, and Hadley Cooper. The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship. Chronicle Books, 2021. 978-1-452-12783-5. unpaged. $18.99. Grades 2-5.
Welcome to Thula Thula, a wildlife reserve in South Africa! Lawrence and Francoise are caretakers for the animals and the land, which is huge and protected and harmonious, until a desperate call comes in to adopt seven elephants. These elephants have been angry, troubled, and dangerous in their previous homes. Though Lawrence has never cared for elephants before, he willingly tries to take in the herd. What follows is a learning experience of trial and error as a relationship slowly grows with patience and practice. Lawrence and Francoise show empathy and compassion, which wins over the herd leader and subsequently the rest. With amazing and vivid illustrations and sparse but poignant text, Tomsic and Cooper tell a true tale of hope and redemption which will stick with young readers. The remarkable connection between elephants and Lawrence is fully felt when they grieve his death by migrating to his home and comforting Francoise. Endnotes and works cited will leave readers wanting more tales from Thula Thula.
THOUGHTS: This works great with other true animal and human relationship bonding books. The method of dealing with the herd’s angry behavior will also be a talking point for social emotional learning lessons. Beautiful and worthy addition to African animal collections.
333 Natural Resources Dustin Brackbill State College Area SD
Mike, Wu. Ellie Makes a Friend. Disney Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-01000-9. $16.99. Grades K-2.
There is a commotion at the zoo! A new animal has joined, and it is a painter just like Ellie! Only instead of an elephant, the new animal is a Panda who came all the way from China. Ellie wonders if there is room for two painters at the zoo. Ellie decides to learn all about her new possible friend. Soon, the two are sharing stories, ideas, and painting together. They find harmony in the ways they are different, and delight in learning more about each other. Sharing can be the best way to learn about someone else and a great way to make a new friend.
THOUGHTS: A delightful book on friendship and sharing. This book is a nice beginner book for readers to look at the country of China, as it contains some brief discussion topics and ideas.
“Mistletoe” falls in with my favorite themes for holiday stories: friendship, homemade gifts, and kindness. Mistletoe the mouse loves chilly mornings, knitting, and her pal Norwell. Norwell the elephant loves cozy fires, decorating for Christmas, and his pal Mistletoe. Mistletoe tries to convince Norwell that strolling through the snow and catching snowflakes on your tongue is a delightful way to spend the day, but Norwell seems cold just looking outside. The solution for these friends? A thoughtful friend, some quick knitting needles, and an extra-extra-extra large elephant sized snowsuit. In typical Tad Hills fashion, the story is warm and enjoyable just like the illustrations.
THOUGHTS: Fans of Hills’s Rocket or Duck and Goose will love Mistletoe the mouse, but any young reader with a dash of Christmas spirit will enjoy this sweet story.
Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Bob. Harper Collins, 2020. 978-0-062-99131-7. $18.99. 352 p. Grades 3-6.
Taking center stage to tell his story, Bob’s voice is honest, “I’m no saint, okay?” and readers will delight in his humorous antics, “If we could talk to people, they’d get an earful.” When Bob wakes to a familiar bark, something in his memory is jogged. But he shrugs it off and goes about his day, looking forward to a visit with Ivan and Ruby. The weather forecast showed another hurricane is on the way, though, so this day won’t be like all of the others. When Bob is separated from his friends, he reverts back to his puppy survival instincts and experiences an adventure of his own. Fans of Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan will delight in this new installment that updates readers on much beloved characters Bob, Ivan, Ruby, and Julia.
THOUGHTS: A must have for elementary libraries, copies of this title will be in high demand.