The Boy and the Elephant by Freya Blackwood
Picture Book Review
Freya Blackwood is indisputably one of Australia and the world’s best picture book creators. Her works continually appear on the CBCA awards and winners lists and she has also won the international 2010 Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.
All of her books are standouts. Some of my personal favourites are The Treasure Box; Look, A Book!; My Two Blankets and The Feather.
And now Freya has created The Boy and the Elephant, which stands alongside her other masterpieces.
The poignant storyline is enhanced by a flawlessly created imaginary element.
A boy seems to be alone and lonely. We see him getting ready and travelling to school and then by himself in the crowded playground. He has to be independent; his family is busy and doesn’t seem to have time for him. We discover during the course of the book that they have a new baby.
The boy takes two bowls of food into the treed vacant block next door. The visual transformation between inside and outside, from terrace house to forest, is a subtle highlight. Once in nature he sees small animals and birds but the second bowl is for an elephant.
The elephant is consummately formed with tree trunks as its trunk and legs and foliage as the head and body. The first time you realise that the trees are an elephant, is one of several times you catch your breath while reading this book.
Seasons change, reflected by the changing colours and appearance of the elephant made of trees. The boy visits throughout the year and finds companionship and comfort.
When the forest block is to be sold and the trees lopped, the boy ponders for a time before finding a solution. The story then leads you to other moments where you will have to catch your breath because of the exquisiteness and perfection of the resolution, and what comes next – all told with pictures alone.
The illustrations are executed using pencil and oil paints on watercolour paper.
The story begins with the boy looking out a window into the trees. Freya Blackwood often features windows and doors in her books, and here they are portals to the imagined companion in the green space.
Portrayal of movement is also often a part of Freya’s picture books and at the start of the book she conjures this through unframed vignettes of the boy getting ready for school and preparing and carrying the bowls of food; and through three unframed panels that are placed from the top to the bottom of the double page that increase in size and are positioned from top left to lower right. Once the boy enters the trees, his journey deeper into the forest is shown in four framed panels.
Vertical lines emulate the trunk of trees and elephant, as well as the elephant’s limbs, and silhouettes enhance the intrigue.
Full and double-page spreads show the most momentous scenes as the book progresses.
This book generates a spectrum of tones and responses. The reader contemplates the quiet mystery of why the boy is alone and to whom he is taking food. There is gentle humour deriving from the bewilderment of the loppers when they discover the trees have disappeared. The events and actions surrounding the boy generate genuine emotion and care.
These contrast with the shock of the block sale, with its implication of even wider potential loss of trees destroyed in urban areas and cities.
The Boy and the Elephant is a multifaceted tale. Amongst other things, it is a conservation story where, although trees and nature are precious and a refuge, they may be under threat. It pays homage to the imagination, particularly of children, and how they may find solace through their imagination and in nature. It also tenderly suggests how children may have agency to change and improve their circumstances and relationships.
The Boy and the Elephant is an outstanding book of the highest order. It embodies wonder.
My review of The Unwilling Twin (and how to use with children) by Freya Blackwood at PaperbarkWords
My review of The Feather (and how to use with children) by Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood at PaperbarkWords
On another note, an author has mentioned to me recently that picture books are not selling as well as usual leading up to Christmas this year, which is inexplicable and disappointing. The Boy and the Elephant is one of the best picture books you could buy. Find a child to give it to or keep it for yourself.