The Magician’s Elephant: This children’s book is a fable for adults

children's fantasy book reviews Kate DiCamillo The Magician's Elephantchildren's fantasy book reviews Kate DiCamillo The Magician's ElephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

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.

~Terry Weyna

children's fantasy book reviews Kate DiCamillo The Magician's ElephantThis is a sweet story that moved me several times. I listened to the audio version which was beautifully narrated by Juliet Stevenson. It annoyed me that the characters kept repeating themselves for emphasis, and that they all spoke the same way no matter what gender or social class they belonged to, but I think children will forgive this little quirk.

~Kat Hooper

The Magician’s Elephant — (2009) Ages 9-12. Publisher: In her eagerly awaited new novel, Kate DiCamillo conjures a haunting fable about trusting the unexpected — and making the impossible come true. What if? Why not? Could it be? 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. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be narrated by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna


  1. This sounds like an absolutely beautiful book.

  2. My daughter loves Because of Winn Dixie (her favorite book), so I think I’ll get this one on audio for us to listen to together. Thanks, Terry!

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