The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Summary from Goodreads: When a fortuneteller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller’s mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. Here is a dreamlike and captivating tale. In this timeless fable, the author evokes largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.
What a pleasant visit I had in the city of Baltese. I met a bright assortment of characters, each looking for the place they were meant to be and the people they were meant to be with, and who were all connected by the magical appearance of an elephant. I read other books by Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie) years ago and I remember enjoying both of them which is why I wanted to give this one a try. The Magician’s Elephant lives up to the same clever wit, delightful characters, and pleasing prose as DiCamillo’s other books.
This book was a pretty quick, easy, and cute read, totally fitting it’s children’s literature classification, but it has a deeper message about hope, faith, human connection, and achieving the impossible. It read a little like a fable to me and reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, not that I have actually read Chaucer’s work in its entirety, but I do remember what I learned and read of it in a Humanities class. Just as Chaucer assembled a variety of pilgrims to tell their stories, DiCamillo introduces readers to several of the residents of Baltese: the Magician, the Lady, the Soldier, the Policeman, the Orphan, the Nun, the Countess, the Beggar, the Dog, the Servant, the Boy, and of course the Elephant. The chapters alternate between these characters’ points of view and we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and the elements that stand in their way of achieving them. I admire how the author reveals so much about the characters and their stories in so few words. Their unique and endearing quirks make them memorable and entertaining.
Their are some bleak aspects to the plot, but the charming writing portrays an underlying humor and hopefulness in the events. The pages aren’t necessarily action-packed, but desire to reveal the mystery of how all of these individuals will overcome their misfortunes, and how they are all connected made it a page-turner for me. It may not appeal to all readers, but the strong characterization, uplifting themes, and the smart writing left me with happy ponderings and that feeling of contentment that comes from enjoying warm moments with old and new friends.
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Age Recommendation: The actual words are easy and the book is not long, but the themes have some depth to them, so while 3rd graders and some 2nd graders could likely read the book easily enough I think your average 4th grader would comprehend the message more easily.
Appropriateness: Nothing to worry about here unless you have a particularly sensitive young reader who might have a hard time with the hardships of orphans and animals.
Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you should read The Tale of Despereaux also by Kate DiCamillo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The BFG and pretty much all other books by Roald Dahl.
Topics and Questions for Discussion: This section may contain spoilers so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want anything to be given away stop here.
1. Leo Matienne, the Policeman is described in chapter 3 this way, “Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet and because of this he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. He liked to ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘Could it possibly be?’ ” Why are these questions “poetic?” Why do they have no answers? How does asking these questions make Leo different from some of the other characters?
My thoughts: Leo’s questions allowed him to consider the impossible and to think through ways to achieve it. It gave him a more hopeful attitude, a new perspective and he was later in the book able to inspire the same thoughts in others. That is what poetry can do as well which makes him a poet.
2. In chapter 3 Leo Matienne stands at the top of a hill and watches the lamplighters do their work on the street below. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince and the lamplighter that the Little Prince visits. The Little Prince says he thinks the lamplighter is the least absurd of the grownups because his occupation is useful and beautiful. Would Leo agree with the Little Prince? What about his character supports your answer?
My Thoughts: Leo would agree with the Little Prince. He stops at the top of the hill to view the lamplighters at work because it is beautiful which is indicated by the fact that watching the lights spring to life inspire his poetic thoughts about the elephant. In the dark of the city the lamplights must have been a relief just as the Little Prince found comfort in sunsets.
3. Baltese is covered in clouds and darkness and cold, but the real problem with the weather is that it won’t snow. How does the weather relate to the feeling of the characters and the events in the book? How does weather and light or dark affect you?
My Thoughts: The dark oppressive clouds are full of the potential for snow but it doesn’t come just as the people of the city are full of hope and dreams for their future but unable to fulfill them. The exciting newness of the elephant spark an ember of hope that their dreams may be possible, and as soon as the main characters begin to fulfill their potential the clouds release their oppression and the snow falls. I love how snow changes a world, makes it softer, new, quiet, bright with whiteness, and clean. The snow-covered Baltese held the same hope and possibilities for the people.
4. Sister Marie has no doubt that “all God’s creatures have names.” What is the significance of names in the book? Every major character has one, even the dogs. What is the significance of names in life?
My Thoughts: Names give identity and individuality. They separate us and depending on our behavior can be known for good or bad in the world. They can also indicate our background or ancestry. The character’s names certainly made me think of them from different countries or gave me an indication of their status in society. Knowing a name indicates a connecting with someone or something. Even the elephant’s name was important to her though she couldn’t communicate it. She wanted to be back home where people would be able to call her by name. Once Hans Ickman remembers his dog’s name he is truly able to connect with the feelings from his boyhood and get on board with the seemingly impossible task of sending the elephant back in order to achieve healing for the city.
5. Why is Madame LaVaughn’s presence necessary for the Magician to undo the magic? What does he need from her? What does she need from him? Why do they say the same things to each other each day she visits the prison? Have you ever felt the power of forgiveness either by forgiving yourself or others?
My thoughts: They each want to be seen and recognized. They want validation of their problems and of their worth. They were each asking for something of the other in their repeated conversations, but they weren’t clear and were so focused on what they wanted that they couldn’t see what the other needed. The Magician forgiveness and Madame LaVaughn needed an apology and regret. When the Magician finally let go of the idea that his magic would be his legacy, when he finally forgave himself and communicated his sorrow Madame LaVaughn could finally see that she mattered to someone and was able to forgive him. they both had a weight lifted. The Magician could finally perform the magic needed to send the elephant back and Madame LaVaughn could see good in other people again despite her injury.