Later that day, Olive and Arthur were upside down on the monkey bars again. Olive let her hands hang loose so they nearly touched the ground. She closed her eyes. Her thoughts somersaulted in her head, bumping and rolling into each other: the elephant, the tortoise, and the photo in Arthur’s big book.
Like soft pieces of clay, these thoughts rolled around, then merged together to form an idea, big and bold and exciting.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said.
“It’s about my old and wonderful thing. I didn’t have one today, but I still need to bring something to the school’s birthday party.”
“You’re not going to bring that tree, are you?”
She laughed. “No. I’ve thought of something else. But I need your help.”
With The Elephant, Peter Carnavas has created a brilliant work of art, cunningly folded into the deceptively small package of a short illustrated novel for young readers aged seven through eleven. This joyful, hopeful exploration of family dynamics affected by grief and mental illness uses simple yet powerful symbolism to create a child-centered platform from which readers can identify and/or empathize with the characters. Anyone looking for effective ways to open discussions about mental illness with child readers – or to provide what will surely prove a highly effective support resource – will welcome The Elephant with immense gratitude.
Olive’s life is pretty great: she has Arthur, the quirkily wonderful best friend to whom she can tell “anything at all”, and she has the world’s best grandfather who bakes cookies, turns their backyard garden into an oasis, and guides her through exciting walking adventures around town. But her father’s depression, which to Olive takes the visual form of an elephant (nobody else can see it), threatens her joy. When her teacher announces the theme of the school’s 100 year birthday – “old and wonderful” things – Olive becomes determined to “fix” her dad. This is at least partly so that he will, in turn, fix her bicycle, an old and wonderful thing that was her now-deceased mother’s childhood plaything. More than this, though, Olive also yearns for joy and connection in her family. Working together with Arthur and her grandfather, she helps make everything happen in surprising ways, finally realizing that “this was just what it felt like when wishes came true”.
The warm, plain, rich written text is more than sufficient to mark The Elephant as excellent, but Carnavas’s playful, emotionally evocative line drawings catapult the work into the exceptional realm.
This book is also exceptionally child-centred, showing genuine respect for children’s experiences, values, and capabilities. In particular, the use of symbolism provides a developmentally appropriate metaphor for how depression might seem to a young child. Best of all, the story shows how both child and adult advocates can provide support that enables children to reach their goals collaboratively and thus help improve their own and their families’ lives; there is no suggestion that children must or could do such work independently (despite Olive’s initial fear that she should). The Elephant accomplishes this through Carnavas’s development of characters, dialogue, plotting, pacing, and conflict that are somehow both refreshingly simple and amazingly true to childhood realities – an impressive feat indeed. While some knowledgeable readers with experience of mental health challenges may quibble that the narrative resolution is too easily achieved, it is plausible and offers feasible optimism for child readers when read allegorically.
The Elephant is a must-buy for everyone who knows anyone touched by mental health issues – which is everyone. This book belongs in every home, library and classroom.
Michelle Superle is an Associate Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley where she teaches children’s literature and creative writing courses. She has served twice as a judge for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and is the author of Black Dog, Dream Dog and Contemporary, English-language Indian Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2011).