Masterwork of a Painting Elephant by Michelle Cuevas

Lynn: Once upon a time there was an elephant called Birch who dreamed of beauty and a boy named Pigeon who lived on Birch’s back.  Pigeon never leaves Birch’s back – never ever.  He has everything he needs and even goes to 5th grade from the safety of the elephant’s back because elephants are so “fiercely protective of their babies.”  But Pigeon realized that Birch is pining for his lost love, an acrobat from his circus days and Pigeon yearns to meet his mother and father so during summer vacation they set off for Paris.  Along the way the pair discover many things about themselves and the world, about home and family, art, truth and the definition of love.

Like Pigeon Jones, the reader will experience an extraordinary ride on Masterwork of a Painting Elephant (Farrar/Frances Foster October, 2011).  Can magical realism work in a book for younger readers?  In this case – absolutely!  The premise is freshly original and Cuevas’ distinctive prose is both beautiful and slyly humorous.  Quirky, moving and thought-provoking, this unique little gem stands apart from a field that this year is crowded with the ordinary.

Cindy: A boy living on an elephant? Acrobats? Paris? A third of the way through the book I was thinking, WHO IS THIS BOOK FOR? And I was also thinking: Lynn said she loved this story. Now, Bookends readers you must understand: Lynn does not usually like books like this. She hates Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I had to fight her to not weed The Little Prince from our middle school library. She doesn’t usually go for books that are introspective and philosophical  with lines like this one:

Never get attached to someone, Pigeon, You’ll spend the rest of your days waiting for that person to come back, or worse, waiting for yourself to come back.

She goes for science fiction and pure escape. So, Lynn, what gives?

Lynn: Yeah yeah – I knew I’d get some flak for this one.  It is a wonderfully weird little book.   I also knew I would hear, “Who is this book FOR?”  Well, true–it isn’t for every kid or even every other kid.  But it is for that kid who not only reads at a higher level but who is ready for something completely different, something that will change their perception of what the reading experience can be.  Hey, Cindy – how many times  have I heard YOU make this argument?  There are kids who will love this book!  This is the sort of book that can provide a reading seismic shift for a young reader who encounters it at the right time.  One for the general audience?   No but we need to remember those young readers who want something out of the ordinary.  Now – don’t get me started on Jonathan Livingston Seagull!

Cindy: Guilty as charged. I’ve made that argument a lot on special books. But I hadn’t finished. I ended up liking this book a lot. I think it’s the kind of book I would have liked myself in elementary school or even junior high (when I wasn’t reading Lois Duncan mysteries). One of my favorite lines was:

But I do know art, and nobody’s going to buy a painting by an elephant.

Wrong, Slim. Here’s a gallery of them to select from, and the money goes to helping to protect the endangered Asian Elephants. You can watch a video clip there, or on YouTube of a painting elephant in action. One of our West Ottawa Elementary School libraries held a reading fund raiser with our students and used the money to buy one to hang in the school. People do buy paintings by elephants.

Lynn…we haven’t mentioned the illustration. I’m busy watching elephant painting videos…can you take over?

Lynn: Those videos are really interesting – those elephants really seem to be composing their pictures.  But, yes – the art work is quirky and intriguing too.  Ed Young adds minimalist ink sketches that complement the book very nicely.  Now back to the elephants.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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