It had been one of those news days…. Actually, there had been a string of such news days—hate-filled headlines, bombastic egos, dangerous threats. The world seemed extra prickly and dangerous. It’s at these times that I especially like reading with kids. Fortunately, I had a reading gig all lined up at an elementary school—it was the week leading up to Read Across America. Bless the schools—the teachers, parents and kids—who make this such a fun tradition each year. What a great celebration!
I was visiting Pre‑K and kindergarten classrooms, so I put together a little storytime centered on the themes of peace, gentleness, inclusion, and love—The Big Umbrella, One Dog Canoe, Worm Loves Worm, Xander’s Panda Party, and Strictly No Elephants—and went to read.
The kids at this school are obviously read to—they are polite, engaged audiences. They enjoyed whatever combination of books I read, but it was Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, that was the biggest hit in each class. They were hooked from the first line.
The trouble with having a tiny elephant for a pet is that you never quite fit in.
Near as I can tell, it was the two word phrase “tiny elephant” that made them sit up and lean in. When I turned the page, they leaned in further.
No one else has an elephant.
The text is spare, but it’s the illustrations that made them lean in, I think—an apartment house, every other window showing the usual sorts of pets that people have. Puppies, goldfish, cats, a bird in a cage etc. And then the boy with the tiny elephant who lives next door. Separate. Apart.
We’re then treated to spreads of quotidian activities with the tiny elephant—going for walks, struggling over cracks in the sidewalk (the tiny elephant is afraid of them) and the like.
And then! Joy! It’s Pet Club Day—everyone is meeting at Number 17. All the cats and dogs and their people head out to the club meeting. As does the tiny elephant and boy.
But when they arrive at Number 17, there is a sign that says: Strictly No Elephants.
The tiny elephant leads the boy back home, oblivious to the sidewalk cracks now, because: That’s what friends do: brave the scary things for you.
You could’ve heard the proverbial pin drop. I looked out on little faces registering the pain of exclusion. We all know what that feels like. When I turned the page and the art showed rain and a blue and grey color palette that mirrored our emotions, their little faces grew even sadder. But I held the page open just a bit longer than usual. The spread is wordless, leaving the pictures to carry the magic. The boy and his tiny elephant have red and yellow on their clothing (the elephant wears a scarf, of course)…and so does a girl sitting on the bench, her own pet in her lap.
I watched their eyes travel from the boy and his elephant to the girl. They sat up just a tiny bit straighter, the light of hope returning to their eyes. I turned the page.
Turns out, the girl has a skunk for a pet. The trouble with having a skunk, of course, is that you never quite fit in.…
“He doesn’t stink.,” the girl says. And the boy agrees.
They start their own club! My readers were ecstatic—what a great idea! There’s a glorious spread of unusual pets. The kids went wild. We identified each of the unusual pets—a porcupine, narwhal, giraffe, and penguin among them. We were giddy with relief that everyone had found each other.
The kids and their pets find a park with a treehouse and they paint their own sign. This part was my favorite. At first they follow the model they’d seen—Strictly no strangers. No Spoilsports. But then they change it. It’s a sign that says who is welcome instead of who is not.
All are welcome.
A most satisfying picture book!