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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Queenie: One Elephant's Story, written by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $19.00 ages 5 and up

"By 1905, Queenie was about nine, and this meant she was old enough to carry passengers. She would wait patiently while her passengers climbed a stepladder and sat in a special saddle called a howdah. At the signal from her keeper, she would slowly move forward..."

It's interesting that, on a day when I read a convocation speech that George Saunders made to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University about the need for showing kindness in tangible ways to others (< , I also read this powerful book about an elephant who spent too many of her days making money for her owners by carrying hundreds of passengers around the Melbourne Zoo.

The young elephant was plucked from her natural environment and her mother's love by hunters, trucked to Calcutta and transported by ship to Australia. There, she became Queenie and began her life in service to zoo patrons. There were happy times, of course. She loved her first keeper, Mr. Parsons. She worked six days every week, and was much loved by many who met her and rode on her back over a period of forty years.

As happens too often, there were also times of misery:

"Some children stuck pins in her trunk.
Once some boys offered her fruits and nuts, but when she stretched out her trunk,
they pulled the food beyond her reach. This went on for some time, until Queenie
seemed to tire of the game..."

or did she? You will have to read her story to learn how truly intelligent elephants are!

Her story is told with grace, and is informative for young readers. I hope that it will encourage discussion over our perceptions concerning animal 'slavery' and what we have done to animals in the wild in our past, and are still doing today. It may even lead to some thoughtful conclusions about making changes to protect the animals that do remain in the wild.

Peter Gouldthorpe has created acrylic illustrations that evoke a time period long past. They are elegant and detailed, allowing readers to get a feel for the zoo as it was in the early twentieth century. His gentle renderings of Queenie herself are testament to her gentle nature, her willingness to do what was asked of her, and the legacy she left when she was put to sleep during the food shortages of WWII. It is a story to be shared.  

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