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How to Be an Elephant

I find it interesting how much I tend to admire nonfiction picture books these days. As a child, that wasn’t the case at all, but then information books have come a long way in the past fifty years.

We used to talk on this blog about how difficult it was for information books to win the Caldecott Medal, but then we had 2014’s winner Locomotive by Brian Floca and last year’s Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe. Could the Caldecott go to a nonfiction book this year, too? I’d like to think it’s possible, but it’s such a strong year for picture books in general, so I’m not holding my breath.

Have you seen How to Be an Elephant by Katherine Roy yet? It’s just as good as her first solo book, Neighborhood Sharks (2014), but you might not recognize the painting style right away. Where Sharks was appropriately watery, Elephant‘s style is more stripey. It seems to be done in watercolor with some digital overlays.

(I was a fan of this book even before I discovered Roy’s website and videos, but these certainly underscore her commitment. And have you seen the Windows software ad? Someday we might do a post about the pros and cons of learning more about an illustrator’s process. For now, though, I just wanted to share those links with anyone who hadn’t seen them yet. Now back to our topic: the book itself.)

By following an African elephant from its birth, Roy provides a semblance of plot and a structure for both text and art. Elephants learn their skills from their highly social herds. We learn about elephants bit by bit, spread by spread. The newborn elephant learns to walk; we learn about her durable skeleton and padded feet, perfectly adapted for long-distance travel. She learns which scents mean food and which ones danger; we learn about elephant “smell-o-vision,” Roy’s term for the ability to understand surroundings via scents.

And on it goes. What I especially love about how Roy approaches this subject is her willingness to experiment visually. We get a mix of approaches: a wordless spread, some accurately depicted nature scenes, diagrams, cutaways, and even humorous analogies showing how an elephant’s trunk is like a Swiss Army knife. Rather than coming across as disjointed, it demonstrates just how amazing these animals are. Roy’s enthusiasm for her subject is palpable.

So that’s my opinion. There’s always more to say, but I’ll save it for the comments.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. “We used to talk on this blog about how difficult it was for information books to win the Caldecott Medal, but then we had 2014’s winner Locomotive by Brian Floca and last year’s Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe.”

    Indeed. Before those two I think it was “Snowflake Bentley” all the way back in 1998 (actually winning the award in early 1999). I always compare the (previous) odd failure of non-fiction books to score with the Caldecott voters to the similar lack of success with the very best documentaries with Oscar voters, though heck even comedies are generally left waiting at the door. I totally agree that this new book by this gifted writer and artist is as superlative as NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS. Unfortunately for me I missed her presentation earlier this year at Books of Wonder but I did witness the one she gave on her shark book in 2015, one that was wholly fascinating. Roy is one of our great young talents, and I am gleefully anticipating what mammal she has lined up for her next book. She brings a new dimension with those exquisite wordless tapestries, which as you contend are seamlessly incorporated alongside diagrams, cutaways and humorous vignettes. Love the “Sound Off” spread and the effective employment of the circular sound waves, which is further ampplified by the diagram of an elephant’s hearing mechanism. The elephant bonanza at the book’s center is sure to recall Disney’s “Dumbo” to legions of young readers. The “Out on the savanna the elephants rumble, forever on the move in search of food, water and safety” spread is a stunning atmospheric meteorological canvas; the zoological playform spread “Common Ground”, which offers up size and space comparisons shows Roy is equally adept at minutiae; the stylistic phantasmogorical “Smell-O-Vision” spread made be briefly recall Evan Turk’s art in “Muddy”; the back matter buffo; the end papers wonderfully safari-oriented. Oh, I found the “Family Matters” mini chapter a complete delight (“African Elephants Are One of the few species on Earth that live in permanent social groups”) and smiled from ear to ear gazing at the young elephant protruding through the picture frame.

    There really is so much in this book, and Roy’s alternating temperament is a perfect fit. She doesn’t try to push the sadness we feel over their diminishing numbers, but of course that wasn’t the focus. What I do find incredible about her is that she is not only a scientific investigator extraordinaire, but an artist of the very first rank. Jason Chin of course is another in that category and not coincidentally his GRAND CANYON for me is the other spectacular non-fiction book of 2017 for young readers. Oh heck for ANY readers I should say!

    Lolly, I am with you in hoping non-fiction continues to earn some attention from the committee (the Siberts are there of course) but a cross-over is well warranted. As you note the events of the last two years prove this kind of book is no longer bringing up the rear. Thank you for this expert analysis and passionate framing!

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