Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review #17: Tua and the Elephant

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review features Tua and the Elephant by debut author R. P. Harris.  I spied this book while browsing my local library for new animal fantasies, and was immediately drawn to the precious cover illustration by Taeeun Yoo.  I know, I know--you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but how could you not fall in love this one?  By the time I read the jacket flap, I was sold and ready for an exotic adventure in Thailand.  Here's the summary from the Chronicle Books website:

Tua and the ElephantTen-year-old Tua—Thai for “peanut”—has everything she needs at home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, except for one thing she’s always wanted: a sister.  In the market one day, Tua makes an accidental acquaintance—one with wise, loving eyes, remarkable strength, and a very curious trunk.  And when Tua meets Pohn-Pohn, it’s clear this elephant needs her help. 

Together, the unusual team sets off on a remarkable journey to escape from Pohn-Pohn’s vile captors.  From the bustling night market to the hallowed halls of a Buddhist temple and finally, to the sanctuary of an elephant refuge, this clever girl and her beloved companion find that right under their noses is exactly what each has been searching for: a friend. 

I've read a lot of animal fantasies over the years, but not many that featured elephants, especially elephants in Thailand.  From page one to "The End," I just loved this story of unexpected friendship.  (A friendship that is extra-cute since Tua's name means "peanut" and her best buddy is a pachyderm.  You know, because elephants like peanuts?  Oh, never mind...)  In addition to being a heartwarming story, this book is a fantastic example of world-building and has a very unique take on "talking" animals, too.

Unlike many animal fantasy stories, Tua and Pohn-Pohn do not actually talk to each other.  Most of their communication is done with gestures (such as Pohn-Pohn taking Tua's hand in her trunk) or by Tua putting words in Pohn-Pohn's mouth by interpreting her expressions, reactions, etc.  As the story progresses, the narrator does show the world through Pohn-Pohn's thoughts from time to time.  And sometimes, the interpretations AND thoughts even go hand in hand.  For example: "Pohn-Pohn tossed her trunk up and down...She could smell the musky scent of elephants..It was in the air and on the ground--it was all around her.  She reached out and stroked Tua's back as if to say, 'Can you smell that?'"  (pg. 162).  Here, the narrator is showing the reader what is going on in Pohn-Pohn's head, while giving us Tua's interpretations of the elephant's actions.  I can't recall ever reading a book with a communication set up like this before, and it was rather remarkable.  It you want to try a non-talking form of  communication in your own animal fantasy novel, you could definitely learn a thing or two from Harris!

The fact that Tua and the Elephant takes place in the real world instead of a fantasy one doesn't make the setting less fantastic.  Harris really immerses the reader in Tua's Thailand home, from the bustling city to the serene elephant sanctuary and everywhere in between.  Cultural words are peppered throughout the story, giving the prose an authentic and natural feel.  The reader even learns much about the society and economy through Tua's young eyes, from the impoverished locals to the wealthy farangs (foreigners) she meets during her journey--as well as the kind and cruel people that make up each class.  Add Pohn-Pohn's views on the world--from the villainous mahouts who abused her to the wonderful little girl who feeds her tasty mangoes--and the book gains an extra level of world-building depth.  The author's note explains that Tua's story was inspired by Harris' own trip to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I've always heard that writers should write about what they know and love.  The careful attention to detail and culture in this book shows that Harris truly took that advice to heart.

If you enjoy books about faraway places and exotic animals, than Tua and the Elephant is a great pick for you.  If you love friendship stories, then this book is definitely a winner for you, too.  And if you write animal fantasy, you should trek out to your local bookstore and snatch this up ASAP.  I guarantee this is a book you won't soon forget.  (Okay, I'm done making lame elephant jokes now.)

For the life of me, I could not find a website for R. P. Harris, but you can find out more about the novel on Chronicle Books' website:

You can also learn more about Taeeun Yoo and her beautiful illustrations on her website:  (Her gallery is just lovely!)

And if you read this book, do let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think.  :)

Happy reading!  

Note: Cover art and summary blurb are both from the Chronicle Books website, listed above.

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