The Magician's Elephant

by Kate DiCamillo

Other authorsYoko Tanaka (Illustrator)
Paperback, 2011



Local notes






Candlewick (2011), Edition: Reprint, 208 pages


When ten-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene encounters a fortune teller in the marketplace one day and she tells him that his sister, who is presumed dead, is in fact alive, he embarks on a remarkable series of adventures as he desperately tries to find her.


Audie Award (Finalist — 2011)
Kentucky Bluegrass Award (Nominee — Grades 3-5 — 2012)
Oregon Reader's Choice Award (Nominee — 2012)
Yoto Carnegie Medal (Nominee — 2011)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

208 p.; 5.13 inches

Media reviews

DiCamillo writes here in a register entirely her own, catching not the ­whimsical-fabulous note of earlier masters for young readers, nor the jokey-realistic one that has too often taken its place, but instead a mood of sober magic that unfolds into something that can be called, without
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pejorative, “sentimental,” meaning straightforward and heartfelt. The style may evoke Calvino, but the substance belongs to Christmas.
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1 more

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
Orphaned Peter Augustus Duchene went to market to buy fish and bread for his master, instead he used the coin to ask a fortune teller the fate of his sister. Despite what was told to him by his warden, in his heart he knew Adele was alive.

Learning that his heart is true, the gypsy also told Peter
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that an elephant will lead him to her.

When a magician arrives in town, instead of casting a spell to produce flowers, alas, a huge elephant crashes down through the ceiling of the theater.

The 2001 Newbery honor winner for Because of Winn Dixie and the 2004 Newbery medal recipient for The Tale of Despereaux, DiCamillo once again wove magic in an exquisitely crafted bewitchingly enchanting tale of a boy, his sister, his master, a downtrodden magician, a police officer, a countess and a mason worker who are all impacted by the unexpected.

Richly detailed with captivating images, this dark tale is filled with light and hope.

This is a book for children with adults in mind. The beautiful images were so evocative that I didn't want the book to end.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Arconna
Readers will remember Kate DiCamillo as the author of the adorable Tale of Despereaux, which was turned into a computer animated film in 2008 (which I had the pleasure of seeing and enjoying). The Magician's Elephant is a less expansive narrative, but one which attempts to reach into the heart of
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the human condition through the figure of the child. It is a story which looks at the moral complications of lies, the power of loyalty, and the desire and safety found in the family unit (even if that unit is broken).

The Magician's Elephant is about Peter Augustus Duchene, a young boy who has lost his entire family and who has been adopted by an ill and disgruntled soldier (Vilna Lutz) who wants Peter to grow up to be just like him. But when Peter spends Vilna's grocery money on a fortuneteller, he
learns an amazing truth: his sister is alive and an elephant will lead the way. A series of strange events soon follows and Peter begins to question everything, uncovering the lies about his life and his family.

DiCamillo makes me wish I had children. The Magician's Elephant lends itself well to parental voice acting because it has such a large cast of characters: Peter, Vilna, Adele, the Elephant (you read that right), the Magician, Leo, and several more. Each character, remarkably, has his or her own storyline, though some get more attention than others for obvious reasons. The plethora of characters adds a certain charm to the story, since it allows DiCamillo to move temporarily away from the dark family-oriented narrative of Peter into the odd-ness of her world and its eccentric cast. The novel never truly escapes from darkness, though, resting firmly in dark comedy territory.

The darkness is perhaps why I found the book so interesting. Setting aside Peter's orphan status, the novel is rife with trauma-induced mental illness. Vilna is a broken soldier who still thinks he's part of the army, crying out as if experiencing flashbacks from a war we're never really told about. The Magician and Madam LaVaughn have been reduced to the repetition of the same grief-stricken routine by the trauma of the Elephant's entry into the world. Some readers may find the darkness overwhelming, but I think the effect it has on the closure of the narrative is more powerful than would the excavation of everything but Peter's story. The intersection of all of these other stories and traumas makes the ending a fascinating (almost cathartic) experience (though, in all honesty, I think there were too many secondary characters, some of which weren't given the attention they deserved). A good deal of the trauma is also attached to an underlying didacticism in the narrative, which I found interesting not because there were messages to be found and learned in The Magician's Elephant, but because the perspective through which these moralistic moments are derived is that of a child (Peter). There aren't any grand moments in which adult characters tell the young protagonist that X is wrong and that they must learn a lesson (except when DiCamillo wants to show how some of the adults are hypocrites).

As a story for kids, I think The Magician's Elephant is a fantastic read. While the story is dark, there are plenty of humorous moments. The quirkiness of the plot and characters doesn't get in the way of the story, though, which is something some chapter books fall prey to. Instead, The Magician's Elephant is a wonderful story about the power of family, friends, forgiveness, and compassion, with an interesting cast of characters and a strong plot. It's definitely something to read with your kids (if you have them) or to read on your own.
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LibraryThing member matbee
Instantly my second favorite book. =]
LibraryThing member NarratorLady
I've been looking forward to this one for a while now, partly because I've enjoyed all of DiCamillo's work so far and partly because it took a record 10 weeks for it to go through my library's waiting list and finally to me. A very popular book!

It begins spectacularly, with a performance at the
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Bliffendorf Opera in the city of Baltese, when a magician, intending to produce a bouquet of lilies to a noblewoman in the audience, instead causes an elephant to come crashing through the roof and into the lady's lap, crippling her. Earlier that day, 10-year old Peter Augustus Duchene had been told by a fortuneteller that in order to find his little sister, who disappeared when she was an infant, he should "follow the elephant".

So here we have: a mystery (where did the elephant come from?), a quest (finding the lost sister), and a wrong to right (poor, crippled noblewoman). Plenty goes on in this book, but none of these conundrums is really satisfactorily resolved. Except for the sister, but there is certainly none of the expected quest.

First of all, where are we? It's dank and cold all the time, most of the population is poor and sad, and the shadowy illustrations by Yoko Tanaka show a world where little hope is expected. Most of the people have vaguely French or Russian names and the clothing seems to reflect circa 1900. The overall gloom lends itself to lots of dreams and imagery, all beautifully crafted, but surely these resonate more with adults than they do with children.

I had high hopes for the elephant. When Peter finally meets her, I expect that she will speak to him and give him wise counsel but, alas, she is too depressed. She is being viewed and poked and prodded by the masses and she misses her homeland, wherever that is. (We don't know her name because, the omniscient narrator tells us, it's in a language we wouldn't understand.) Peter discerns all this by looking into her eye because she is not a talking elephant and so he decides to forget about the sister and find a way to get the elephant home.

The moral of the story is clear: alone we are powerless but together we can do anything. Peter enlists the help of his neighbor, a beggar,a stone mason, the noblewoman and, of course, the magician and together they send the elephant on her way. To where? No idea. Oh, and the sister sees all the hubub from her window in the neighboring orphanage, joins the group, and is immediately recognized because her name is the same as that of Peter's lost sister. They are reunited, proving the fortuneteller correct.

It took me a while to figure out why nothing about this book inspired me. I wanted the elephant to be the hero of the book because poor little Peter was way too noble for me. All DiCamillo's other heros have been an uppity mouse (The Tale of Despereaux), an egotistical rabbit (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and spoiled pig (Mercy Watson). Her only other human protagonist was the girl in Because of Winn Dixie and she was an interesting child with a wonderful spirit and curiosity.

Poor Peter, being raised in a garret by a doddering old soldier, is certainly a sympathetic character, but in the end I could only feel pity for him and relief that he was out of that garret. And where in the world did that elephant go?
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LibraryThing member 3bythesea
A lovely, quirky book that has the rare ability to appeal across generations. I read it in an afternoon and then passed it to my 12 year old daughter who like it more then The Tale of Desperaux and now am planning to read it to my 7 year old.
LibraryThing member meisbres
Imagine. You are at a magic show. The magician promises to produce a bouquet of lilies, but instead he makes an elephant fall through the ceiling. That elephant lands on a woman's lap, crippling her legs. And so begins The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. Unfortunately, that is the most
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exciting part of the book. Although I love Because of Winn Dixie and am a fan of anything involving elephants, I just couldn't get into this book. After the elephant falls on page 15, nothing much exciting happens until the book ends 200 pages later. I give this book a thumbs down. (For ages 8 and up)
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LibraryThing member patricia_poland
DiCamillo has written this one like a poem. A magician 'accidentally' conjures up an elephant instead of a bouquet of flowers - and the elephant falls through the roof of the opera house onto Madam LaVaughn, crippling her. But it is Peter, who is told by a gypsy woman that he must follow the
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elephant to find his sister, Adele, who works the magic to bring everyone together and make a happy ending for all (though Madam Vaughn does remain in a wheelchair). Each character has an air of sadness and loss about him or her but as in all DiCamillo's novels - each one finds what they really need and often what they so long for if they but seek it. Wonderful story.
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LibraryThing member SugarCreekRanch
A beautiful piece of children's literature... but one that adults will appreciate more than kids.

My kids (ages 7 and 10, boy and girl) were underwhelmed. They were expecting the adventure and humor of The Tale of Desperaux, or the adventure of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This was too
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quiet and thoughtful for them. They did want to hear more every night, but concluded that it was not a favorite.
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LibraryThing member elkeursin
Loved this book!!!! Just fantastic! Little one really enjoyed me reading this to her even though she's too little to understand what's going on. I will read this one to her again when she's a bit older. Reading this one aloud was really fun as the voices are so unique to speak.
LibraryThing member Smiler69
One fine day at the end of the 19th century, young orphan Peter Augustus Duchene is sent to the market by his caretaker, a cantankerous old soldier who's given him a coin and expects Peter to bring back fish and bread (we later learn Vilna Lutz, the old soldier, always instructs Peter to get
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three-day old mouldy bread and the smallest fish he can find). On this day, he finds a fortuneteller has put up a tent with a sign that reads "The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florit." Peter hesitates to spend the old man's money this way, but he must get an answer, even at the risk of displeasing the old man. What Peter wants to know is whether his little sister is alive, and if she is, how he should go about finding her. The fortuneteller's answer: "The elephant. You must follow the elephant. She will lead you there." Peter is perplexed. After all, there is no elephant in the town. Or at least, none has appeated yet...

A very charming story about hope and love and endless possibilities and the special bonds between living creatures. Thanks to Linda (Whisper1) for recommending this one. I've already got several other books by Kate DiCamillo on my wishlist and look forward to reading those too.
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LibraryThing member indigo7
I Loved this book! It would be an excellent choice to read aloud. The main character is a 10 year old boy, Peter Augustus Duchene, an orphan living with an old soldier guardian. One day a fortune telling palm-reader sets up a red tent in his village market.
The story draws you in right from the
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beginning. The writing is poetic and stylish. Everything has a bit of magic, as if some magic fairy dust had been flinged around here and there.
I loved the actual elephant in the story and symbolicness of the elephant-in-the-room.
This book takes up the important cause of the questioning of everything. The hope Peter has is warm and rewarding. Recommended to children and adults.
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LibraryThing member bookwormygirl
Peter Augustus Duchene is a ten year old orphan who is undergoing training to become a soldier like his father before him. When his guardian, sends him out to buy some fish and bread at the Baltese market square, he sees a fortune teller tent and decides that answers to his questions are far more
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important than eating stale bread. Instead he pays the fortune teller to answer a most pressing question... is his sister alive, and if so, how can he find her. See Peter was told that his sister died at birth - but he’s always had this niggling suspicion. The fortune teller answers him with the response "follow the elephant". To Peter, this sounds preposterous and he just assumes the fortune teller is mad. But when a magician across town tries to conjure up a bouquet of flowers for an audience member and instead summons an elephant who crashes through the ceiling of the opera house, an unbelievable chain of events are set into motion.

I loved that throughout the story you get a little bit of each character as some of the chapters flip from one character’s viewpoint to the next. Although the story is about a boy in search of a sister, a magician who just wanted something “more” in life, and an elephant that although alters many a life, does it for the best, it is so much more about love, relationships, darkness and loneliness but also about hoping, dreaming and believing.

The book’s description says it is geared for grades 4 - 7, but I do not think a child can take in and savor Ms. DiCamillo’s writing. Her wordplay is something to behold - something to be spoken out loud. Not just is the story magical but reading it feels like a treasure. You just feel so good doing it. It is a quick read - the pages are small, the writing is simple, with few words on each page, but the message is so tremendous. Ms. Tanaka's illustrations although sparse (and I confess, I would have really liked there to be more of them) only added to the seduction and mystery of this tale.

All in all, I highly recommend this to children and adults of all ages. This would make a lovely Christmas gift and I can definitely envision it on the big screen.
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LibraryThing member CatheOlson
An orphaned boy living with a crazy old soldier visits a fortuneteller and finds out the sister he thought was dead lives. To find her he must "follow the elephant." But who ever heard of an elephant in the dreary cold of Baltese. But then a magician, in an unprecedented feat of magic, conjures an
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elephant that comes crashing through the opera house roof.

This was a beautiful story--dark but hopeful, poetic but very readable. DeCamillo is such a great writer. I highly recommend this story --- it would be a great read aloud.
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LibraryThing member mariah2
The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo was a difficult book for me to finish. I did finish it, however, as I wanted to see if it would get any better. Unfortunately the story did not improve. The story centers on a young boy named Peter Augustus, who is being raised by a family friend after
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the death of his parents. This family friend suffers from some type of fever ailment, and probably post traumatic stress disorder, and is training Peter to become a good soldier by making him spend his days learning strategy, marching, practicing drills, and eating stale bread and very tiny fish. This family friend also lied to Peter about a very important piece of information. Peter’s parents really did die, but someone else Peter thought was dead was in fact very much alive. Peter is made aware of the existence of his sister after he visits a fortuneteller, and is told he can find her by following the elephant. The story tries to be magical and humorous, but I found it to be dark and depressing. Most characters are caught in a dysfunctional relationship with themselves and others, and the story spends too much time in this dysfunction and too little time in conquering of this dysfunction. The illustrations were very well done but most of them gave off a dark, lonely, and oppressive impression which just added to the weight of the words. I enjoy Kate DiCamillo’s books, well all of them except this one. She is a wonderful author, but this story was a little too depressing for my taste.
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LibraryThing member EdGoldberg
Peter Augustus Duchene held a coin that did not belong to him. It was the property of his guardian, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Vilna had sent Peter to buy fish and bread. But in the market there was a fortune teller and Peter was torn. The honest thing is to buy the bread. But he needed the
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answer to one burning question. And that question was, Is My Sister Still Alive? According to Vilna she was stillborn, but Peter wasn’t sure.

The magician was old and his reputation was falling. Performing in the Bliffendorf Opera House that night, he wanted to do something more wonderful, more magic than he has ever done before. And he did. Rather than bringing forth a bouquet of lilies, he brought forth an elephant, crashing through the roof and crushing Madam LaVaughn’s legs, confining her to a life in a wheelchair.

Adele has always lived in the Orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Light. She knows no other home. Soon after the incident in the Bliffendorf Opera House, she begins dreaming of elephants knocking at the door of the orphanage.

Leo Matienne is a policeman. He lives below Peter Augustus Duchene in the Apartments Polonaise. He is not a man who accepts what is. He is a man who asks “What if?”

How these people’s lives intersect at the “end of the century before last”, in the city of Baltese is so wonderfully told in Kate DiCamillo’s newest book, The Magician’s Elephant. I believe it is her best book to date and can’t wait to put it into my personal library. The way she words the book, the way she describes the events and the city is amazing. The story is heartwarming. The drawings by Yoko Tanaka are excellent and add so much to the book. The Magician’s Elephant is a book for all ages, not just children. It talks about life and family and honesty. It makes you believe in fairytale endings. It makes you wonder. Whether you read the book by yourself or read it aloud to someone else, the proper thing to do is make sure you read The Magician’s Elephant.
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LibraryThing member DrApple
A magical and charming book, The Magician's Elephant shows the power of belief in a world that may seem bleak and hopeless.
LibraryThing member randalrh
In The Magician's Elephant, multiple characters, major and minor, with multiple points of view, direct and react to events in various ways. That's not very common in a children's book, and it's even more uncommon to see the various character threads woven so tightly.
LibraryThing member nomadreader
The barest of beginning plot: The Magician's Elephant is the story of Peter Augustus Duchene, a ten-year-old orphan who chooses to spend food money to ask a fortune teller if his sister is alive. She tells him his sister is alive and an elephant will lead him to her, which is a message Peter does
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not understand, as he has never actually seen an elephant.

The lovely: This book is mostly lovely. It's a story that starts simply and adds richness, meaning and layers as it goes. It's accessible to young readers, and would make a wonderful read aloud book for younger readers, but it's still enjoyable for adult readers. The setting is somewhere between reality and magic. The time is modern, old-fashioned and timeless. The details of space and time are vague, and some readers will likely envision different settings; it's a book that uses your imagination without you even realizing it. Yoko Tanaka's occasional drawings are beautiful.
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LibraryThing member kkcrossley
Sweet story about an elephant that suddenly appears and a boy who wants to find his sister. Do you want to believe and hope or accept the pessimism and possibly lies of others.
LibraryThing member krau0098
I have read DiCamillo's story "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" previously and really liked it. When I saw she had written another book I was really excited to read it. This is a fabulous book; but touches on more adult topics than her other books.

Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10 year old boy
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who has lost his father to war, his mother to childbirth, and his sister at birth. He lives with a military friend of his father's. The problem is that Peter remembers hearing his sister cry and is convinced that she isn't dead. A fortuneteller tells his that he will find his sister if he follows the elephant; but he can't figure out what she means as there are no elephants in Peter's life. Then a magician tries to perform a feat of magic that goes horribly wrong. Peter needs to figure out how the lonely elephant will help him find his sister. The elephant needs to get home, but before that it will open the eyes of the citizens of Peter's city to the fact that wondrous things can happen.

This was a wonderful book. The characters are engaging and colorful, the writing wonderful. Like DiCamillo's other works the writing style follows classic fairy tale-type prose and results in a darkly atmospheric setting. The story is interspersed with wonderful illustrations by Yojo Tanaka, that fit the mood of the story perfectly.

The book itself is pretty small, at most a couple hours of reading. It seems like it would be a good book to read to children as it starts. As I continued to read it though I think many of the adult characters' pondering and some sensitive topics might make this more suited to the young adult (or older) crowd. At one point the elephant contemplates suicide and Peter's caretaker is occasionally quite cruel. Much of the story centers around characters outside of Peter himself and these characters spend a lot of time contemplating how the wonder of an elephant appearing in the city changes their perception of their lives, because if that can happen anything can happen. I think these contemplations will be lost on a younger child and they may find the book to be very slow moving and boring at parts.

I personally found these contemplations to be fascinating and thought-provoking. This is the kind of book that sounds very good when read out-loud and is very lyrical. The story itself is hopeful as well as thoughtful; although the overall atmosphere is very dark and dreary. I thought it was just a superb story. I look forward to reading DiCamillo's future works and will keep an eye out for her future publications.
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LibraryThing member C.Ibarra
I’d originally picked this up at the library for my 9 year old son. He wasn’t interested so I decided to give it a go. This was a sweet story but also a little depressing at times. It was beautifully written and I loved how the story flowed.Peter Duchene is an orphan who clings to the hope that
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his little sister is still alive. He’s been told by the man that took him in and raised him that she was stillborn but Peter has his doubts. After a visit to a fortune teller he is convinced she is out there waiting for him. His only clue is he needs to find an elephant. I think this book would be better appreciated by an older age group. My son is an advanced reader but this couldn’t hold his attention. I’ll have him try it again in a few years.
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LibraryThing member SandyStiles
Beautifully written for the higher-level reader. I loved the inter-weaving of the tales and the lovely ending. I just knew when it started out that it would have a perfect ending.
LibraryThing member vibrantminds
Another inspiring tale from Kate DiCamillo. One small (or large) act of magic brings about the unexpected and allows the true magic to take place. That one act affects many people's lives and connects and binds them together for a grand finale of little fanfare.
LibraryThing member TerryWeyna
Some books marketed as children’s books strike me as fables for adults instead. The Magician's Elephant is such a book. Clearly children will enjoy the story for itself, but it would be a shame if adults passed up the chance to read this charming book about following one’s dreams.

Peter Augustus
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Duchene is a 10-year-old orphan who is in the keeping of his guardian, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Lutz is training Peter to be a soldier just like him, requiring him to perform such tasks as marching in place. Lutz has told Peter that his entire family is dead, including his sister, Adele; she was stillborn, Lutz tells Peter, and his mother died in birthing her.

One day Lutz sends Peter out with a coin intended to pay for fish and bread. In the marketplace, Peter comes across the red tent of a fortuneteller, bearing a sign promising: “The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florit.” Peter cannot help but be seduced by this promise, for “[t]he audacity of the words, their dizzying promise,” are too much to resist. His decision to spend his coin on the fortuneteller is worth the lost meal that results, for he learns that his sister lives. To find her, he must follow the elephant.

What the heck? An elephant? There are no elephants in the city of Baltese. But the fortuneteller assures Peter that what she has said is the truth, and “the truth is forever changing.”

That very evening a magician “of advanced years and failing reputation” attempts to conjure a bouquet of lilies for his audience at the Bliffendorf Opera House. He intends merely to use sleight of hand to present the lilies to a noblewoman watching the performance. But something deep inside the magician yearns to work real magic, and he whispers a spell. Through the roof comes an elephant, landing squarely on the noblewoman’s lap, crippling her. The magician is jailed, and the elephant is locked in a horse stable.

How we get from here to the rescue of Peter’s sister from an orphanage – a very fine orphanage, run by kindly nuns, but an orphanage just the same – is a tale of determination, love and magic. The poetic text is accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Yoko Tanaka, who works in shades of grey and a level of detail that makes them worth gazing upon for much longer than it takes to read a page of text.
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LibraryThing member susanmartling
A good example of weaving together different story parts and characters to come together in the ending--good story planning. This story is haunting, foreign, magical, sad and sweet. Appropriate for grade 4 and up. Strange illustrations by Yoko Tanaka.

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½ (553 ratings; 3.9)
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