If it’s illustrated by Pamela Zarenski (Henry & Leo; The Whisper), I’m going to have to read it. So I did. And I love it.
HMH, 2018. Hardcover Picture book, 40 pages.
As the neighbor holds a plush elephant and peers out the window, they tell us what they KNOW. Interpreting the sights, smells, sounds, the unnamed narrator imagines Zola—the new girl moving in—is having a bath with her elephant, feeding it lots of toast and playing hide-and-seek. Following every whimsical double-page image that accompanies what the narrator knows is a double-page of image of what is really happening (sans text). The differences are necessarily stark and jarring.
The neighbor is certain that Zola is living this full magical life with their elephant friend and because she is, they are certain that there is no room for them. An elephant would, naturally, take up a lot of space. Of course, the pet friend Zola does have is a little bird, who occupies the small cage for transport, not that huge crate. Zola has room and could use a friend like the unnamed neighbor to transport them both from the lonely, loud, disruptive reality of moving (the elephant in the room).
So captivated by the imagination of what Zola must be experiencing with her elephant, the neighbor is finally compelled to visit. The little bubble vignettes of the neighbor playing hide-and-seek and taking bubble baths with elephants, shows her doing these things with her plush elephant. Zola is doing their favorite things with their favorite animal, the neighbor has to find a way to participate.
The neighbor finally knocks on Zola’s door. And we finally see what is in that big crate. And finally see what Zola actually does have—now that the neighbor has arrived.
I’m not sure how the partnership was formed between writer and illustrator, but Zagarenski was the perfect choice. The turn of her imagination, her color palettes, the way she layers, the way she blends fantasy into reality and vice versa. Zagarenski’s illustrations are captivating, but marvelous for us (and the writer, no doubt) that they do not surpass what text has to offer. “I know because…” is the unnamed narrator’s refrain. And then you can say to yourself, the neighbor interprets the sounds that way because…(insert your interpretation).
And what about the unnamed aspect of the neighbor? We learn the new girl’s name, Zola, from the start. The narrator is an “I” with no one engaging them in order to name them for us. Is it that the neighbor is so shy as to withhold their own introduction to even us, the reader/listener—like, Zola, us being a potential new friend? Could the neighbor be any neighbor, as shy and uncertain as we might be when encountering new friend.
Zola’s Elephant is not only striking visually, but in what Randall de Sève accomplishes. She turns expectations on their head in multiple ways, playing with not only the narrator’s imagination, but our own. ‘Moving’ books are usually about characters like Zola, from Zola’s perspective and even from Zola’s imagined perspective—the person who has moved away from/to. Zola’s Elephant offers a inspiring opportunity for the neighbor to consider the newly arrived—and to not only consider them in such positive lights (and golden washes), but to be compelled enough to not merely wonder, but knock on their door and actually find out. The burden of courage in this ‘Moving’ book is on the neighbor, not the New Kid.
An absolute must.
Recommended for all the libraries; for neighborhood children whether new or old. For lovers of beautiful and unusual picture books. The Last Castle by Travis Jonker has similar elements of interpreting sounds, if you enjoyed that aspect of the book.
Randall de Sève has spent many fun-filled years teaching young children at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY, where she now lives with her husband, two daughters, a very wicked dog named Henry Biscuit, and his feline archnemesis, Cleopatra.
Pamela Zagarenski is the winner of two Caldecott Honors. As well as illustrating picture books, she creates paintings and has a gift card line. She lives in Connecticut.