Stories are the time-honored way for parents to broach difficult subjects with young children. The conflicts and dilemmas of fictional characters can be read over and over, and pondered with a parent. Many a child who is scared of monsters has learned a trick or two from Max, who yells “Be still!” at the Wild Things and then leads a rumpus in the forest as their king.
Another kind of monster, one that can emerge in real life, is a mean-spirited, prejudiced human. What happens when you encounter one of these? What can one do with the hurt and anger of being discriminated against? In her gentle fable Strictly No Elephants, Lisa Mantchev addresses this sensitive subject. Her story turns on a metaphor that young children will immediately respond to—a bias against unusual pets.
The main character is a little boy who knows he stands out because his pet (and best friend) is an elephant. Furthermore, his pet doesn’t fit the expectations people have of elephants: it’s tiny, not huge, and it’s timid rather than trumpeting—to the point of being nervous about cracks in the sidewalk.
Despite his worry that they won’t fit in, the boy brings his pet to a meeting of the town’s Pet Club—and is confronted with a sign on the door that says “Strictly No Elephants.” Crushed, the boy and his pet retreat down a suddenly gloomy, all-blue street—until they bump into a girl with a pet skunk who has also been turned away. “The sign didn’t mention skunks,” she says, “but they don’t want us to play with them either.”
However hurt the boy feels about being excluded, he and the elephant know what it is to be true friends. A narrative refrain, “that’s what friends do,” reminds the reader how loving, reciprocal relationships work. Because the boy knows the elephant is afraid of sidewalk cracks, “I always go back and help him over. That’s what friends do—lift each other over the cracks.” In turn, when they are shut out of the Pet Club, the elephant “leads me back to the sidewalk, never minding the cracks. That’s what friends do—brave the scary things for you.”
Bolstered by their caring pets, the boy and girl decide to form their own club. As they hunt for a clubhouse, other children with unusual pets rush to join them. In Taeeun Yoon’s endearing illustration, the quest turns into a multispecies freedom march that includes an armadillo, a flying bat and a diminutive narwhal in a glass bowl. When the posse finds an old tree house for their club, they hang a sign outside that says “All Are Welcome.”
Strictly No Elephants gives children the words to describe how genuine fellowship and friendship work. The kindness and inner strength of the main characters seem much more appealing than the exclusiveness of the Pet Club. Thoughtful books like this one—which has won many awards—are a springboard for parents to talk about their deepest values.
I leave you with the final image of the book: the tiny elephant waving his trunk, giving directions to the tree house to everyone because “friends never leave anyone behind.”