Monday, November 16, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

By Kate DiCamillo

Ages 8-12

“But perhaps you do not understand, I was crippled by an elephant! Crippled by an elephant that came through the roof.”

In an imprudent display of real power a magician conjures an elephant instead of a bouquet of lilies. The pachyderm lands in the lap of Madam Bettine LaVaughn, throwing the city of Baltese into an uproar. She inspires the bakers to make pastries called Elephant Ears and the people to dance a lumbering dance called The Elephant. Her presence is the subject of conversation all across town. Where did she come from? What should be done about the magician who conjured her? Is he a criminal? Can she be sent back? And should she? The only person who is sure of anything is twelve-year-old Peter Augustus Duchene. A fortuneteller told him an elephant would lead him to his sister—and an elephant has appeared. That means that Peter’s guardian, Vilna Lutz, lied, and his baby sister is alive. Peter intends to find her with the help of the elephant. What he does not realize is that the elephant needs his help as well.

The Magician’s Elephant is a compact story about family, forgiveness, and home. Lovely writing, lovely story, lovely pictures, lovely themes. Just lovely.

Caveats: discussion of war and soldiers dying on the battlefield, reference to a stillborn child, reference to magic

Possible topics for discussion: war, family, forgiveness, significance of home

Questions to get you started:

  1. The elephant seems to be many different things to all the characters: for the magician she is his one display of power as well as his downfall, for Madame Bettine LaVaughn she is the instrument of her disability. For the countess Quintet she is a means to establish herself in society. For Peter she is the hope that his sister lives, and for Adele she is the hope that someone will come to claim her. But is the elephant really any of these things? Is she a symbol? Or is she just an elephant?

  1. Hans Ickman says to the magician and to Madam LaVaughn, “It is important that you say what you mean to say. Time is too short. You must speak words that matter.” What does he mean by this? Are there things you should say?

  1. Laughter is important to two of the characters in this book: Madame LaVaughn and Bartok Whynn. Bartok laughs constantly after his horrible accident leaves him disfigured and then stops when the small group of people comes to get the elephant. And after the elephant leaves, Madame LaVaughn laughs aloud and hugs Adele. What does laughter mean for each of these characters?

  1. Dreams play an important part of this book. Bartok, Peter, and Adele all dream. What does each of their dreams mean and how are they connected to one another?

  1. What does the snow symbolize? Why might DiCamillo have used this symbol?

  1. When Hans Ickman says to Madam LaVaughn, “Everyone has gone a little mad, her response is, “Oh, very well. I see.” Why does “madness” make everything ok? And what signs of madness are around?

If you liked this you might like: Clockwork by Philip Pullman, The Wild Hunt by Jane Yolen, Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, Skellig by David Almond, and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

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