Some books marketed as children’s books strike me as fables for adults instead. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo is one of these. Clearly children will enjoy the story for itself, but it would be a shame if adults passed up the chance to read this charming book about following one’s dreams.
Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10-year-old orphan who is in the keeping of his guardian, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Lutz is training Peter to be a soldier just like him, requiring him to perform such tasks as marching in place. Lutz has told Peter that his entire family is dead, including his sister, Adele; she was stillborn, Lutz tells Peter, and his mother died in birthing her.
One day Lutz sends Peter out with a coin intended to pay for fish and bread. In the marketplace, Peter comes across the red tent of a fortuneteller, bearing a sign promising: “The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florit.” Peter cannot help but be seduced by this promise, for “[t]he audacity of the words, their dizzying promise,” are too much to resist. His decision to spend his coin on the fortuneteller is worth the lost meal that results, for he learns that his sister lives. To find her, he must follow the elephant.
What the heck? An elephant? There are no elephants in the city of Baltese. But the fortuneteller assures Peter that what she has said is the truth, and “the truth is forever changing.”
That very evening a magician “of advanced years and failing reputation” attempts to conjure a bouquet of lilies for his audience at the Bliffendorf Opera House. He intends merely to use sleight of hand to present the lilies to a noblewoman watching the performance. But something deep inside the magician yearns to work real magic, and he whispers a spell. Through the roof comes an elephant, landing squarely on the noblewoman’s lap, crippling her. The magician is jailed, and the elephant is locked in a horse stable.
How we get from here to the rescue of Peter’s sister from an orphanage — a very fine orphanage, run by kindly nuns, but an orphanage just the same — is a tale of determination, love and magic. The poetic text is accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Yoko Tanaka, who works in shades of grey and a level of detail that makes them worth gazing upon for much longer than it takes to read a page of text.