Great Illustrated Books

Tua and the Elephant

By R. P. Harris

Chronicle Books LLC, 2012
Pages : 202
Suggested Ages: 8 and Up
ISBN: 9780811877817

At ten years old, Tua navigates the open air night market as an expert.  She works her way through her Thai village, stopping under the string of lights and taking in the view.  Her favorite foods, papaya and cilantro salad, chocolate sauce and roti tempt her.   As she stops to buy mung beans for Auntie's curry noodles she listens to the street band play and watches a vendor carving animals from soap; she accepts a necklace of fragrant flowers from a friend. Our heroine knows her way around and shows she is both fearless and warmhearted. She comes upon a young elephant, whom she immediately tries to befriend, but she is stopped by the two mahouts, who are the elephant’s keepers. But she has seen the longing look in the elephant’s eyes, and she knows she must help her, come what may. 

So their adventures together begin with Tua rescuing the elephant from the mahouts, who had her staked and chained to the ground. She coaxes the elephant into Auntie Orchid’s house to hide her. The humor of finding an elephant in the house and trying to feed her seem like everyday events here and are delightful. Tua and Auntie Orchid name the elephant Pohn -Pohn, and begin to plan how to get her to safety.  ChiChi, an uncle and monk, can help hide Pohn- Pohn at the Buddhist temple.

On the way, Tua and Pohn -Pohn have to outsmart the mahouts, who are chasing them.  Humor and danger mix, as they walk through the traffic in the village and along the river and rice fields until they reach the temple.  At the temple, they are fed and cared for, and Chichi assists in finding an elephant sanctuary where Pohn- Pohn can live. Grateful, Tua prepares to take Pohn-Pohn to the sanctuary. When they reach the safety of the sanctuary, Pohn-Pohn is introduced to other elephants, and Tua learns how Pohn- Pohn will be cared for. 

This multicultural adventure is a great bridge book for middle grade readers, with the incorporation of many stylized charcoal and linoleum block-print full-page pictures, boldly done in rich purples and golden orange that add much texture to the story.  The illustrations not only add a visual depiction of the setting, sounds and sites of the novel, but also portray the tender relationship between Tua and Pohn-Pohn, as they bond during her rescue and help each other on the way to safety. 

What makes this story so unique is the immersion in another culture that children may know little about. Tua is allowed to explore her village and street market and to travel with Pohn-Pohn to find the refuge without adult supervision. Also, the issues involved in animal rights, mahouts who mishandle animals, volunteer organizations that rescue these animals, and who ultimately owns the elephants are all handled in a neutral but informative way.  Without a heavy-handed comparison, readers can see that Tua’s life is quite different from that of a child growing up in the United States.  

Tua and the Elephant, set in a complex land with different customs and language, is a gem. With a rousing adventure and the heroine saving the day, it makes for a fun and informative reading experience!  


The author incorporates many Thai words, as well as customary Thai greetings in her novel.  These are defined either in parentheses or within the context of the story. Tua means peanut, which became her name at birth, because she was so small. She names the elephant, Pohn because it means happiness.  By the end of the book all readers will recognize many words and know what they mean!

Reviewed by :

Themes : Adventures and Adventurers; Elephants; Multicultural Books

If you love this book, then try:

Bingham, Kelly.Z is for Moose. Greenwillow Books, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0060799847.

Marino, Gianna.Meet Me at the Moon. Viking Juvenile, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0670013135.

Sheldrick, Daphne.Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0374104573.

Critics have said

"For a book aimed at middle graders, kudos on three fronts: providing a child's-eye view of Thailand with foreign words to be decoded in context, creating a strong connection between the elephant and the girl and using a simple vocabulary to introduce the complex issue of poaching. Yoo's multiple illustrations, done in charcoal and linoleum block prints, catapult the story even higher. Foreign yet familiar, the action is often humorous and reinforces the sweet bond between pachyderm and "peanut." A rousing adventure that introduces the issue of elephant trafficking in a gentle and appropriate way."
Kirkus Reviews

" Yoo's vibrant full-page illustrations, rendered in charcoal and linoleum-block printing, perfectly complement and elevate Harris's remarkable tale. A charming story sure to capture the hearts of young readers."
School Library Journal

"Harris touches on serious social issues (children living in dumps and mothers begging with infants), but ear tweaking and nose yanking are about as violent as it gets for the humans. The histories of the elephants at the sanctuary are horrifying, but are firmly in the past, with the elephants living happily in the present. This gentle approach makes for a wonderful and entirely age-�_appropriate introduction to both the plight of the Asian elephant and the good kind of mahout, set against a backdrop of pure adventure."
New York Times Book Review