I was sent two picture books to review by an author named Doris Rueger. One of them is called Ella the Pink Elephant: Her Life, Love and Fame and the back of the book describes it this way:
Once upon a time, Ella, a baby elephant born in a zoo, was so cute that she was dressed in crowns, earrings, tuts and colorful shawls and fancy slippers. She got lots of attention! When she outgrew her baby costumes she was elegantly dressed for weddings and was still the center of attention. But what happened to Ella when she grew old and wanted to retire from the limelight? When she was no longer loved for her looks, did she find the meaning of true happiness? Follow Ella through her life from birth to old age!
I’ll admit. I looked at the book and thought, a child’s book, not about becoming an adult but about growing old and retiring? Why would someone write about that? How will children relate to it? After my first time reading it I found myself wondering if I would have to talk to the children about child-stars, or perhaps about their great-grandmother, a retired author. The book emphasizes the giving up of special clothes and make-up. What would my children-of-a-stay-at-home-make-up-less-mother make of that?
Well, my four year old related to the book just fine. Somehow he could see that the point was not about retiring. Retiring was just an excuse or opportunity for the elephant to come face to face with who she is outside of the roles, make-up and clothing she had taken on. “It’s not the outside beauty that counts its how she relates to people,” my four year old said.
The lesson of the book isn’t confined to old age. In some ways children experience it as they move out of the cute babyhood stage into childhood. A baby is instinctively adorable, a child will be judged more on how he or she relates to others. I think also of children playing with other children, and how having a neat toy might make a child seem more interesting for a while but at some point what is going to count is how the child relates to others.
I find myself thinking of the old Ace of Base song, Ravine, and the lyrics that go:
Have you heard, have you heard?
About this girl who was ripped up by her roots
I am standing here in my ravine
Once again I see a piece of the sky
My seven year old had a harder time with the book. The beginning few pages are really realistic. We’re introduced to the zoo that the elephant is going to be born at, to the need for elephant keepers and how the zoo hires a new employee in preparation for the impending birth. Then wham, the elephant parents give their daughter the name Ella. “What happened? They can’t speak. The zoo keeper can’t know that’s her name,” the seven year old says.
I’ve written before about some of the problems with anthropomorphizing animals. If animals don’t relate the way they do in real life the questions is, what are the rules? Can the animals talk to other animals? Can they talk to humans? What rights do the animals then have? (Is it cruel to keep talking animals in a zoo? Can they eat each other? etc, etc) This story (thankfully) doesn’t involve any questions of animals eating one another, and its quite a bit less problematic than most. The elephants talk to the humans but possibly only to the humans they are particularly close to. Most of us can remember having some animal we felt could speak to us, so the once over the initial confusion of how the animals and humans interact, the story can carry on with ease. Until of course it comes to the coating of the elephant in pink make-up, which just seems bizarre, at least until I did a google image search for painted elephants.
The role of pink in the story is an interesting one too. Pink is Ella the Elephant’s favourite color, yet I get the sense she was taught to love it by the keeper who continually dressed her in it. I can’t help thinking about the way we frequently dress our little girl in pink. Now she’s our third child with two older brothers so she has plenty of second-hand boys clothes in her dresser too, but she does have a good sized pile of pink clothing too. Are we setting her up to identify with her looks?
Would it have been easier for Ella the Elephant if she hadn’t ever been taught to be anything but a plain grey elephant? The book talks about how in retirement she treasures all the happy memories of things she’d done, and it sounds like a lot of her friends were made during her years in the limelight, so maybe not.
The pictures of the book are beautifully done by the author herself. They look to my very untrained eye like crayon or pastel. I am impressed with Ms. Rueger’s ability to capture the postures of people in motion. The book itself is quite nice. The writing is done on colored pages rather than white, with each two-page spread having a different color. There’s a decorative trim along the top and bottom of many of the pages. The combination of the colored pages, trim, and pictures gives a nice richness to the book.
A painted elephant retiring seemed like a bit of a unlikely children’s story, but the author pulled it off quite beautifully. It is an great book. You can read my review of one of Ms. Rueger’s other books: Morris the Village Voice.