‘An Elephantasy’ by María Elena Walsh (Review)

IMG_5498When you hear talk of a flying elephant, most Anglophone readers’ minds will probably turn in the direction of a certain Disneyfied pachyderm entertaining crowds at the circus.  However, down in Argentina, such a comment might well arouse rather different childhood memories – and thanks to Pushkin Children’s Books, my little helper recently got to share in the experience 🙂

What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called An Elephantasy, and it’s by María Elena Walsh (and it’s translated by Daniel Hahn).

What’s it about?
It is about a woman, and one day she takes her dog out for a walk, and at her doorstep is an elephant – not a bird, not a squirrel, not a stray cat, an elephant!  She makes the elephant her pet, and one day the elephant gets stuck up a tree!  The only person who can get him down is the fireman – in fact, he’s the only person who can do anything.  The only way to get the elephant down is to put wings on him, but then the elephant and the fireman fly off on a journey!

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
It was really funny and awesome!

What was your favourite part?
My favourite part was when the elephant was stuck up the tree, and no-one could do anything.  Literally, the only thing thing the woman’s brother Roberto could say was “We’re toast”!

Was it difficult to read?
No, it was nice and easy 🙂

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I recommend this book to other boys and girls who like elephants.  I hope I see him next time I go to the zoo!

Emily, thank you very much.

Today’s post, then, looks at another classic of overseas children’s fiction, a chapter book running to just over 180 pages.  María Elena Walsh is a major figure in Argentina, and her 1966 book Dailan Kifki, translated here as An Elephantasy, is an extremely popular and acclaimed work, featured in Julia Eccleshare’s 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  Quite apart from its quality, though, it’s a funny, madcap story, with a larger-than-life hero who manages to bring people together.

The story begins with a woman opening the front door to find an elephant, if not in the room, at least on her doorstep:

Well, I was about to scream for help when I noticed that the huge animal had a very large letter hanging from one of its ears.  Someone had written my name in really big writing on the envelope.  So I opened it, and this is what it said.  Listen up:

Dear Miss,
     My name is Dailan Kifki, and I beg you not to be alarmed at the fact that I’m an elephant.  My owner abandoned me because he is no longer able to feed me.  He is sure that you, miss, with your good heart, would want to take care of me and cook me yummy, lovely oats soup.  I’m very hardworking and affectionate, and as for TV, I’m absolutely crazy about cartoons.

Just imagine!
p.9 (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2016)

Well, what would you do?

Where most of us would be calling the zoo in a panic, the woman takes a liking to the visitor, and once the initial shock has subsided, the rest of her family agree that he can live in their garden.  There’s more than a touch of the Paddingtons here, and in a similar manner to the likeable bear from deepest, darkest Peru, Dailan Kifki causes a lot of trouble for the narrator and her new friend, a long-suffering fireman.  This is especially true when the elephant is found at the top of a tree – I wonder how he got there…

As I’ve mentioned many times before, one of the most impressive aspects of the Pushkin Children’s range is the focus on ensuring quality translations, and for An Elephantasy the publisher has opted for another high-profile writer.  Daniel Hahn is an award-winning translator from several languages (you may remember that he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year for his work on Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion).  In addition, he’s the author of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, meaning he’s a man who knows what’s what when it comes to kids books.  In fact, only a few days ago, I saw an article of his asking where the next crop of young literary heroes will come from (the answer, it seems, is from Pushkin and other brave presses…).

A great story and a lively translation are aided here by the look of the book itself.  As well as providing black-and-white sketches inside, Aurora Cacciapuoti has contributed a beautifully colourful cover (with Dailan Kifki stuck up a tree), giving the final touches to a book that would look good in any private library.  What more could you ask for?  Certainly, my little reader was very impressed.  Move over Dumbo, there’s a new elephant in town 😉


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