Reviews /

Elephant Island

Authored by Leo Timmers
Illustrated by Leo Timmers
Published by Gecko Press

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Elephant Island shows us how a beleaguered seafarer – an elephant named Arnold, no less – overcomes shipwreck and isolation. After a series of calamitous rescue efforts, Arnold pieces together an island and a community from the flotsam. It can be read as a story about hope through adversity, and about pragmatism in the face of defeat. It can be read as a whimsical tale about a bungling numpty. It works very well on both levels.

It is full of artful contradictions.

It is both doomy and light. Pages that are dominated by the dark angry sea have a perilous mood which would not be out-of-place in an Armin Greder text. It is lamentably necessary to consider whether the images of the elephant’s first shipwreck are too distressing for young pupils. And some may have experienced dangerous sea-crossings themselves.

Other pages are a vibrant technicolour feast of cuteness and humour. The energetic use of colour across the book is wonderful. I liked the vibrant energy of the island set against the foreboding navy of the ‘boisterous waves’.

The characters are full of expression, yet remain quite difficult to interpret. Intentionally so. Rather than the cast of animals displaying clear emotions like cartoonish happiness, fear and sadness, Leo Timmers manages to have a crocodile that emotes a kind of existential resignation. A seagull with ennui.

Arnold’s ‘crew’ gets larger as the disasters befall them, like an Odyssey-in-reverse. If there was one clear message throughout, it is perhaps that things are better when we are together. Even a shipwreck can be made into something positive when you have a community to rebuild with. And heroism is collective. Arnold finds a captain’s hat early on, and takes the lead, but by the end, all of his happy crew are doffing identical bowler hats from a shipping container.

Text and illustration are united in a knowing “raised-eyebrows” humour. We are invited to snicker at ‘Arnold stepped aboard gently’, juxtaposed with our clunking protagonist catapulting the old sea dog out of the boat. Intertextual links are made to classic poetry, with characters remembering tales of ancient mariners. The book maintains a rich visual humour throughout: the whole island community snacking on salvaged waffles was particularly cute.

Elephant Island is a great example of how picturebooks can invite children to philosophise and think deeply, without ever needing to tiptoe into a ‘teacherish’ didactic tone. It has great potential for classroom use. Children across the primary age range would get a lot from it, engaging at the different levels that Leo Timmers has so deftly woven in. Silly and profound. Funny and poignant. Perilous but optimistic.