CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number . . . . November 10, 2017
In this engaging fact-based picture story book, readers meet Aaron, a teenager in Zambia whose selfless action results in the rescue of an orphaned baby elephant. Although his first instinct is to think of these animals as dangerous, his natural curiosity and empathy propel him into a job as elephant keeper at an orphanage. As he grows closer to his young charge, he acquires a new understanding of the elephant’s place in nature and the desperate need to help counter the disastrous effects of poaching and loss of habitat. The Elephant Keeper is based on a true story of a young elephant keeper the author met during a visit to Lilayi Elephant Nursery. A portion of the proceeds from book sales will go to the project run by a conservation organization. The book is published as part of the “CitizenKid” series, a collection whose aim is to inform children about global issues and inspire them to make a difference.
The Elephant Keeper is divided into three sections with the titles “Orphaned”, “A Friendship Begins” and “A New Home”. Between each section, a double spread with photos offers pertinent facts: elephant characteristics, social habits, and threats that may lead to extinction, job descriptions for their keepers, and the role of the rescue facilities. As well, readers meet the real Zambezi and Aaron and learn more of their actual stories. Readers may feel that the first two of these factual inserts interrupt the flow of the fictional account somewhat, just as tension begins to build. When placed at the end of a book (as is the third one), they serve just as well as further reading to reinforce the detail used to develop the story. A list of conservation organizations that run adoption programs and others that protect wildlife, plus a Glossary, complete the book.
Otherwise, The Elephant Keeper is fast-paced from its dramatic early action scene, through escalating tension as Aaron comes to his decision to accept his new job offer, and as he nurses the debilitated baby elephant, Zambezi, who finally responds to the care. As the action proceeds, readers learn details of elephant ways through Aaron’s observations and interactions: others in his village express purely negative attitudes, his mother’s wisdom guides his empathy, and other keepers with whom he works demonstrate their devotion. The story closes with a vivid sunset silhouetting free-roaming elephants—a vision of the future Aaron has come to hope for as he spreads the conservation message to children who visit the orphanage.
That final illustration will leave a lasting, optimistic impression. Throughout the book, the paintings are infused with bold color against muted backgrounds, with a special focus on warm browns and golds that depict the authentic grassland images of Zambia. Many of them are double-page spreads that include animated detail of both elephants and people to enhance the text.
Ruurs’ book gives compelling insight into the efforts to preserve a unique and appealing species and of the attempts to mitigate the threats from increasing human encounters. It meets the objectives of the series with accessible information presented in a persuasive and encouraging manner to young people in whose hands the future of the world’s wildlife will rest. The Elephant Keeper is also an effective way to introduce young readers to different cultures and communities, as this author has done with other books about families and schools around the world.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in BC.