Heartbreaking children’s book about conservation.
Children’s books don’t always have to showcase the most groundbreaking art to leave an impact. Most of the time, that comes from the power of the story within the book, and with The Elephant and the Tree, Jin Pyn Lee’s tale of an enslaved elephant is likely to haunt you after turning the last page.
Dedicated to ‘the voiceless’, The Elephant and the Tree has all the ingredients it needs to evoke sympathy for nature and a rallying call to improve our conservation efforts. Our protagonist is a young Asian elephant who lives in a forest, surrounded by colourful trees. He spends his days in peace – freely wandering the land, listening to his grandmother’s stories, swimming in streams and smelling the flowers.
But the elephant isn’t alone – he spends his days with his best friend, a young tree. It is abundantly clear that both are young and innocent, no more than children, carefree and without a single worry in the world. This is helped by Jin Pyn Lee’s illustrations, which are simple, but greatly resemble a child’s interpretation of an elephant and the environment in a swathe of colours. It’s picturesque, blissful, and the image of paradise.
Naturally, when tragedy hits, it hits hard, as this idyllic lifestyle is destroyed. The elephant is captured by humans, and the tree, having grown taller than all the rest, is cut down. There is an awful, cruel irony to their friendship, as the tree is now turned into a seat placed on the elephant’s back, forever chained to each other. All they have left are dreams of being free once again, their imagination shackled and framed by an ugly black frame to represent their enslavement and pain, as they remain bound, yet ever hopeful that things will one day get better.
It’s not often that children’s books are willing to abstain from a happy ending and leave readers to reflect that the world isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, something The Elephant and the Tree is brave enough to do. But while we cannot do anything about this poor elephant and the fallen tree, Jin Pyn Lee leaves us on a note of hope, as the stump left in the forest grows a new shoot, as if telling us that life goes on amidst the horrors. It’s all we can do to take a leaf from this story, and press on in our efforts at saving the world, one innocent creature at a time.
Recommended for: Adults looking to introduce their children to environmental issues – prepare the tissues and comforting words, because it’s not a happy ending.
The Elephant and the Tree is published by Epigram and available here