Thursday, December 29, 2011

7. The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant

Written by Michelle Cuevas
Illustrated by Ed Young
$15.99, ages 6 and up, 144 pages

In this quirky, wonderful little novel, an abandoned baby crawls off into the night and into the heart of lonely ex-circus elephant.

Along the way, the baby grows into a boy and helps the elephant find a beautiful thing with feathers that stole the elephant's heart years ago.

And the boy, who wonders what happened to his parents, discovers what it truly means to give his heart to another.

Birch, the elephant, feels that something is missing from his life, and is sad that his trunk is used for menial things.

He's been put to work hosing off cars at a car wash since the circus shut down. Yet it is not what trunks are for, he tells himself.

They're for touching, lifting, greeting, caressing, making things of beauty.

Ever since he almost saw a painting of a phoenix, he's daydreamed of using his trunk to paint.

Yet Birch doesn't quite now how to get out from under his situation.

Then one day he finds a baby boy in a pile of leaves and his world changes.

The baby, a restless little guy with unusually large ears, had crawled away from the steps of an orphanage before anyone could discover him.

When Birch sees the baby, in the rain curled up by a fallen tree, he immediately lifts him to his back for safety and that's that.

Being named after a tree, Birch wants to name the baby after a regal little bird that would perch in a tree.

But when a pigeon lands above them, the baby giggles and claps his hands. Though a blundering thing, it reminds the baby of something.

So from then on the baby is Pigeon -- Pigeon Jones, because every baby needs a last name, something simple like Jones.

Birch's boss at Soap and Suds Car Wash, who is also his former circus boss, named Ringleader, scowls when he sees the baby.

Birch never did like Ringleader -- he was bitter about losing his circus and always criticized Birch for not spraying cars with pizzazz.

"Arch your back. Point your toes," he'd say. "…I want to see showmanship."

But now Ringleader has gone too far. He's made fun of Pigeon's ears and said he's not useful, and the two acrimoniously part ways.

For nine years, Birch and Pigeon live happily in the same town, a town too small for a name and mainly made up of former circus performers.

Pigeon remains on Birch's back, Birch takes up painting, and the two talk of life and nature, and wonder about things they've missed.

Sometimes Pigeon makes up stories about who is parents really are, and why they must have left him, and has a sad dream of his mama softly crying.

He imagines his papa was a circus performer who wore a frog suit and his mother was the Bearded Lady, and they left him so they could run off to the circus.

But mostly, Pigeon feels content just where he is. Not once in those nine years does he ever touch the ground, ever know what grass feels like, yet he doesn't seem to miss either.

"An elephant's back is closer to the sun, and my world was calm, bleached with warmth and brightness," Pigeon reflects back.

In time, however, Pigeon realizes that Birch has missed out on things in his life.

He'd once fallen in love, yet he's never felt that love come back to him. And though he's now begun to make art, he doesn't know what it feels like to share it with the world.

At the circus, Birch had fallen for a beautiful acrobat named Dahlia. They used to perform together, with her doing flips on his back and looking like a great flaming phoenix. Then one day she left him to go to Paris.

Now when Birch paints, all of his pictures are of birds of paradise, his Dahlia.

Unable to shake his despair, Birch warns Pigeon that he should never get attached to beauty or hope. But isn't hope a thing with feathers?

After years of constant togetherness with Birch, Pigeon knows that Birch doesn't mean what he says. He also understands the kinds of feelings Birch is struggling with.

For, Pigeon now knows that kind of love too. He's fallen for a girl named Darling Clementine who he's met in school. (He attends Fifth Grade on Birch's back, the two watching lessons from outside the classroom window because Birch is too big to fit inside.)

So for his birthday wish, Pigeon asks Birch to take them to Paris. They will look for his true love and make Birch the famous artist he's always dreamed of being.

Like life, the journey is full of unexpected turns and detours. They meet four singing hoboes who send them to Bronx Zoo, where a turtle has a cosmic revelation.

Then they get sidetracked by the lure of Hollywood, and its promise of fame, and bumble about, getting confused about what's important.

Finally, they're on their way to Paris. But will they once again be pulled off-track? This time, they must confront a wolf in frog's clothing and discern what is real behind what is not so real.

Lyrical and quirky, this is a story about loving someone enough to let them go.

Cuevas subtly weaves the theme of Emily Dickenson's poem, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," into the story, without making direct reference.

Thus it becomes a delicate surprise for the reader, hinted at and only recognizable to those who already know the poem.

The story is so poetic, I found myself wanting to jot down quotes as I read.

Some are lovely little descriptive phrases, as when she describes leaves chewed by caterpillars as "demure doilies in the moonlight."

Others are heart-melting, as when Pigeon describes his love for Birch: His "whole world rose and fell with Birch's breath and the sound of his heartbeat."

And later, when Pigeon understands what it means to love someone else completely:

"To find someone who loves you, someone who will carry you when you need to be carried and let you go when it's time, finally, to be free."

Graceful ink drawings by Caldecott winner Young compliment the purity and simplicity of the story, and resemble those painted by elephants.

Made up of loose, spare strokes, the drawings focus the readers on what is essential to the story, my favorites being the quiet private moments between Pigeon and Birch.

In one, Pigeon hug Birch's head with his body, as a single tear drops from Birch's eye. In another, Birch pours a fountain of water over them from his trunk.

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