Peter Augustus Duchene waits, coin in hand, in front of the fortuneteller’s red tent. The coin is not Peter’s, but he’s going to spend it because there’s a dizzying question he must ask: Is his sister alive? Follow the elephant, the fortuneteller tells him, and you will find your sister.
The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo’s latest work, set “at the end of the century before last” takes Peter – and readers ages 9-12 – on an adventure with a noblewoman, a magician, a policeman with the soul of a poet, a soldier with a wooden foot, and, of course, an elephant.
When his parents died, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz took in Peter. Lutz always told him his sister had not survived infancy. Now Peter fears the fortuneteller’s answer. He’s decided that it’s a “terrible and complicated thing to hope, and that it might be easier, instead, to despair.” But hope he does.
Amazingly, through a magician’s error, an elephant has crashed through the ceiling of the Bliffendorf Opera House into the lap of a noblewoman, crushing her legs. The magician only wanted beautiful flowers, instead he has produced the event of the season.
Of course, word of the elephant’s unwelcome appearance travels throughout the city. Peter sees in this a message from his sister. In his quest to find her, Peter turns his back on Vilna Lutz. The soldier, who has provided him a meager existence while lecturing him on the brilliance of generals and war strategy, tells him he must forget his sister. But Peter refuses. Finding her means first seeing the imprisoned elephant, and when he does, Peter senses the elephant needs to return to her family as much as he must find his sister.
Yoko Tanaka’s gray-toned, full-page pencil illustrations complement the story and are eerily compelling, requiring a second look.
In fact, the book begs for more than one reading and for sharing aloud. The quiet atmosphere and the tribulations of Peter are layered with a bit of pacifist sentiment and more than a touch of darkness. Younger children may miss the underlying themes, but no matter. Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo’s latest is a fairy tale, a mystery, a truly magical story of love and hope that will captivate readers young and old.