Elephants Have Wings by Susanne Gervay
Ill. by Anna Pignataro. Ford Street, 2014. ISBN 9781925000399
(Age: Pre-school - Yr 6) Highly recommended. Bedtime. And that means a bedtime story, a nightly ritual in many homes and especially this one. Snuggled under the covers, the children wait in anticipation as Father begins Grandfather's Story, a tale from his childhood.
"One night, your grandfather told me and the other children to go outside and search for the secret."
And so begins a new take on the old story of The Blind Men and the Elephant http://www.constitution.org/col/blind_men.htm The children all think the secret is something different - "a rope", "a tree branch", "a marble", "a scarf", "a sandy wall" they cry, and begin arguing until they are so angry they are shrieking at each other like a babble of monkeys because each believes they were right. And then Grandfather came outside carrying a candle and the children saw that each had been right but had also been wrong.
"So what is the secret?" asked the children. "It is for you to discover," said Father. And as the children fall asleep, pondering, they set off on a magical adventure flying on a mystical elephant with wings through to morning where they discover the secret.
In a world where reality comes straight into our living rooms, it is lovely to share a story that offers the suggestion of peace and hope. As the elephant soars over the world's landscapes showing the children its beauty but also its ugliness, the children learn about people and the core thread of humanity that binds us all together. The elephant is symbolic in many religions, representing courage, hope, endurance and wisdom and so the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant is part of the story-telling of many religions and cultures, making this re-imagining a story for all children. The riches of tradition, mythology and spirituality are woven into a wonderful tapestry, beautifully captured by Anna Pignataro's imagination in the outstanding pictures, intertwined with imagery of the Asia and India where the story first originated. The concept that we are all the same but different is a difficult one for young people to grasp because they only see the external but this partnership of Gervay and Pignataro (who also brought us Ships in the Field) is so successful that the message it accessible to all. So much so that it has been awarded the Blake Prize logo, an annual Prize and Exhibition program for contemporary art and poetry exploring the themes of spirituality, religion and human justice, and the first children's book ever to have been honoured in this way.
This is a book for all ages. The commonality of its story across so many religions begs an investigation into why it would be - what is its core message that has such universality? Going back to the original story could spark a discussion about what is truth and how our perception of events is dependent on our role within them and the lens through which we are looking. Even though each picture is full of the richest details, its true beauty only emerges when we look at it in its entirety. I have a shelf on which I put the books that I think are going to be CBCA award winners this year. This one is going onto that shelf!