The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
The Magician's Elephant starts off nicely with momentum and intrigue, slows down a bit in the mostly melancholy middle, then has a fantastic happy ending. No worries though, since Miss DiCamillo's excellent writing skillfully carries the reader through it all. It's a fairly short read, a beautifully designed book and overall, a novel I definitely recommend.

The main character is a boy named Peter who, by all rights, has no real reason to hope for anything in the world. Yet he does. He earnestly hopes to fulfill a promise he made to his mother before she passed away, which was to care for his sister Adele, no matter what. Believing her dead for years, he suddenly learns she’s in fact alive and he knows he must find her. It’s a brief meeting with a mysterious fortuneteller that informs him Adele lives and also points him towards a path that could lead to her. Peter knows he's found his chance and now, all he has to do is find The Magician's Elephant.

Two things I liked most about this book are the strong emotional connections the reader feels for all the characters and....just the writing itself. Yes, this seems obvious but Miss DiCamillo's wonderful writing is just so good. It's a very gloomy setting - an Eastern European town in the heart of winter. Heavy gray skies hang from above and we constantly feel the ever present cold, just as the characters do. But we also feel the strength of their individual spirits, all of which collectively bring warmth to the story. Peter's unwavering belief in destiny and his determination to fulfill his promise also inspires us and brings us through the darkness. Adele's sweet innocence makes us want so badly for things to work out for her. The strange, wrongly-treated magician intrigues us as we feel pity for him throughout his ordeal. We appreciate the honesty and cleverness of Leo the policeman as well, who steps in without hesitation to help Peter. Leo examines each situation asking "What if?" and "Can we still change things for the good?" Lastly but not leastly, we are overwhelmed by the great elephant herself. We certainly feel her loneliness, confusion and fear throughout the story and we long for her too to find happiness.

I was impressed that Miss DiCamillo could take such a depressing environment, plant her group of downcast characters in it, and then shine such lovely light on them. As usual for her work, I found this one to be written clean and safe for young readers, yet full of challenging and fairly complex characters and situations. Generally, I like to read her books aloud with my 8 1/2 yr old daughter because there are so many interesting things to discuss. In this case though, we each read the book separately and talked about it after. She didn't find the overall setting as drab and sad as I did, though I think she just read more quickly and missed out on some of the fine details. She did agree that it moved pretty slowly and mostly, she just really loved Peter, Adele and the Elephant and couldn't wait for things to *hopefully* work out for them. So here's a book that moves slow and is kind of sad, but it's written so well that our little bookworm still dug it! And, as an adult, I appreciated the full journey of going from a dreary, almost hopeless beginning to a satisfying, enlightening ending. That's outstanding craft right there!

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from Miss DiCamillo's excellent text:

(Peter has just entered the home of Leo the policeman and Gloria (his wife) and he's anxiously waiting to know if they will take him to The Magician's Elephant)

"No," said Leo Matienne (the policeman who helps Peter find the elephant is speaking to his wife), "not enough. Never enough. We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?"

"The world cannot be changed," said Gloria (Leo's wife). "The world is what the world is and has forever been."

"No," said Leo Matienne softly, "I will not believe that. For here is Peter standing before us, asking us to make it something different."

(Peter is talking to the magician...)

"But that is impossible," said Peter.

"Magic is always impossible," said the magician. "It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic."

And writing like that is why The Magician's Elephant is a wonderful book for eager readers 8 and up or for parents to read aloud. PLUS as an extra bonus, there are intricate black and white illustrations by Yoko Tanaka which really add to the look and feel of the novel. You really can’t miss with a Kate DiCamillo book so if you haven’t read her work yet, definitely give this one a go.

Happy Reading!