Monday, September 17, 2012

Tua and the Elephant

The middle grade novel, Tua and the Elephant, by R.P. Harris, illustrated beautifully by Taeeun Yoo, is set in an unusual place for most American readers, that is Thailand. The novel is full of interesting sights, sounds and smells that would be new to most elementary school readers. For instance, at the night market with "bare lightbulbs crisscrossed overhead," Tua, the nine year-old protagonist, finds her favorite foods: pad thai omelets, rotis with chocolate sauce and condensed milk and sticky rice with mango. There is also "pop music on a screeching boom box" and a traditional band with instruments such as a coconut-shell fiddle and a bamboo flute. We begin a sensory journey in a very foreign land.

The author tells us something else important early on about Thailand that helps readers understand Tua as the story moves forward:

All Thais love the elephant; from the baby in the crib to the granny in the hammock; from the tuk-tuk driver to the roti vendor; from the city dweller to the rice farmer.  And Tua, being Thai from her toenails to the part in her shiny black hair, was no exception. Tua loved elephants.

The plot begins when Tua goes to the night market for treats and befriends an elephant. She notices that the adorable little elephant, Pohn-Pohn, is being treated cruelly by her owners. We already partly understand their are cultural reasons why Tua is determined to save Pohn-Pohn. But besides the reverence of Thai people towards elephants, the author has created added motivation, that is a particularly sympathetic main character and villains, Nuk and Nang, who are horribly greedy, mean, and usually drunk. Tua has to outsmart them and does, thanks to her indomitable will to save Pohn-Pohn. She is often in danger herself, though Tua always prevails and triumphs. After all, this is a young middle grade novel.

According to the book flap, R.P. Harris spent three months in Thailand and currently lives in China. He's created a believable setting. Poverty and animal cruelty are not hidden. There is much to discuss with kids in this story. As noted in the New York Times Review of Tua and the Elephant,  Harris touches important social issues in a way that is appropriate for elementary school readers.

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