Friday, August 1, 2014
August 1, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Uncle Elephant
[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On the children’s book that’s as sad and as joyous as life itself.
Arnold Lobel’s Uncle Elephant (1981) is one seriously sad children’s book. It’s sad in its premise: the young elephant narrator/protagonist’s parents are lost at sea and presumed dead, and so he goes to live with the titular, elderly bachelor uncle. It’s sad in its content: Uncle Elephant both senses and shares the narrator’s sadness, particularly because his house is full of reminders such as a picture of the parents, and the book’s stories comprise his successful but transient attempts to cheer his nephew up. And it’s even, most unexpectedly sad in its conclusion: the narrator’s parents are found, alive after all; and yet the concluding story, “Uncle Elephant Closes the Door,” focuses much more on Uncle Elephant’s sadness at the end of his time with his nephew, as when he counts the number of days they have spent together and notes that they “passed much too quickly” (a thought exemplified by the story’s contrast to the book’s first, “Uncle Elephant Opens the Door”).
These multiple layers of sadness might seem to differentiate Lobel’s book from most children’s books, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. Think for example of the opening situations of many of the other children’s books I’ve analyzed in this space: the abandoned and bored brother and sister of The Cat in the Hat; the world that has passed Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by; the kidnapping of Curious George from his happy jungle home; the anger and punishment that opens Where the Wild Things Are. Or think of how many children’s book characters are orphaned at the start of their stories: Babar; Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden; Anne from Anne of Green Gables; and Harry Potter, to name only a few. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that children’s books have often been defined not through the absence of such sadnesses, but through characters and stories that respond to them, through representations of how children and the world go on in the face of the inevitable losses and pain that living brings.
Seen in that light, the internal stories in Uncle Elephant are far from the transient moments of happiness I described them as above. Instead, the stories represent life itself: the storytelling and singing, travels and trumpetings of the dawns (a hard one to explain if you haven’t read Lobel’s book—so pick up a copy!), sillinesses and seriousnesses of all of our days. They come to an end, as do all stories, all days and lives. But in between they are full of joy and celebration, of laughter and love, most especially because of the company we keep, the role of family and friends in enriching and illuminating our stories (there’s a reason that one of Lobel’s stories is titled “Uncle Elephant Lights a Lamp”). And while the door may—does—eventually close, we can of course always return to and re-tell those stories, finding again the joy that Lobel’s book (like all great children’s books) captures so poignantly.
July Recap this weekend,
BenPS. Thoughts on this uncle? Any other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?