''Elephant School'' offers a delightful way to introduce young readers to the charm of Kipling's classic story ''Toomai of the Elephants'' (''The Jungle Books''), an account written early in this century of the relationship between a boy and an elephant.
In this new nonfiction book, photographer/writer John Stewart has captured in pictures and text the life of a young mahout, an elephant trainer, and a young elephant calf, at the world's only elephant school. The school, started in 1968 by the Forestry Division of Thai government and located in Lampang in northern Thailand, trains elephants (and their mahouts) for work in the teak forests.
Somchai, a 15-year-old, will spend four years training with his six-year-old elephant. The book begins with the first days of observation at the school and describes the first year. During this time the elephant, Pang Pon, is ''broken'' by a restraint and reward program, though which she learns to trust and cooperate as a partner with Somchai. He learns the vocal, foot, and stick commands used in the basics of forest work - dragging, lifting, pushing, and stacking logs. The next three years reinforce these first lessons.
It's impressive to see the bonding that develops, as the mahout and elephant work together, building a relationship that goes on for a lifetime, often into retirement together. (Elephants have been known to pine away after losing a mahout.) Stewart describes it as a contract: the elephant works and expects in return that the mahout will care for him. Elephants have been known to react angrily if the mahout fails to live up to his obligations - for instance, in neglecting the pleasurable daily bath in the river.
Along the way the reader learns much about elephants. But one becomes especially aware of the respect for, good care, and protection of the Thai forestry elephants, which, without benefit of a labor union, work only six to seven hours, three days a week, with ample time for rest in the shade and for grazing.