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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Magician’s Elephant

Ok, I’m ready to admit I’ll probably never feel ready to comment on this one. The New York Times review by Adam Gopnik revived my interest, because he appreciates everything I appreciate in it. He nails a description of her prose style in the final paragraph.  It is sentimental, but utterly genuinely so. 

People have wondered whether this book is written for "adults or for kids." I don’t get the impression that DiCamillo has an age of reader in mind.  The quality of allegory in her stories suggests that she sees people without age labels. Her style has an oddly mature naivete that I think appeals to some adults and some kids.

I think that in the end the story did not accomplish as much as I thought it was going to from the setup…while others, like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon or Charles and Emma totally surprised me with the packages delivered in a very straightforward manner. Does this make them more distinguished?  They did make me more excited.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I didn’t think DESPERAUX accomplished as much as I thought it could have either. Maybe this is a theme with DiCamillo’s writing . . .

  2. PS, an author and reader says:

    Although I’m an old peacenik, something really bothered me about the way soldiering is presented in The Magician’s Elephant. There are a lot of kids with soldier-dads-and-moms these days “Soldiering is a useless and pointless thing,” says Peter, the main character. What is the child of a soldier supposed to think about this? And there are repeated images of Peter’s father “bleeding to death on the battlefield.” So though I’ve seen Magician’s Elephant described as a good bedtime story, I have my doubts. I think this aspect of the book should have been handled more sensitively. After all, as our President just pointed out in Oslo, some wars are necessary. And even with wars that aren’t, we should be condemning the war-making legislatora, not the soldiers. I thought that was the lesson of Vietnam.

  3. Interesting that you call Where the Mountain Meets the Moon a “straightforward package.” That’s only because Lin is so good. The plot of WTMMTM is as complex as TME and parts of it are equally mysterious are unexplained too. She goes back and forth in time and has stories within stories within stories. But when you read it, even if you’re 9 or 10, you don’t feel the weight of that complexity like you do with TME, you just follow it and enjoy it all. Compare TME to WTMMTM and you realize how amazing Lin’s writing is in her book. And (imho) how labored DiCamillo’s is.

  4. I don’t know. I appreciate DiCamillo’s lyrical language. I think that while I liked Where the Mountain Meets the Moon better, ME is, IMO, DiCamillo’s best book after Winn Dixie. Maybe I’m dense, I think I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t see the humor in the ME, nor did I see it in Despereaux. I think she makes the tragedies in the stories so real to me and the character’s so believable, I don’t find I laugh or even smile at whatever levity is there.

    Mountain was a storyteller’s story, for sure. I thought the book design was beautiful. It is a rare girl’s adventure where she sets off on a heroic quest, not fleeing a forced marriage or an assasin or other bad situation. What an homage to the traditional literature of Lin’s heritage.

  5. Mama Librarian says:

    I don’t know — I thought Despereaux was a fine adventure tale with just enough swashbuckling and pontificating to satisfy both ends of the spectrum, but Edward Tulaine was waaaaaay tooooooo sloooooow for me — but I have kids who LOVED it (not the kids I would have expected either). So it’s hard to predict with DiCamillo. I think she’s at the point where the name alone, as with Creech, is enough to get people interested. Too bad she’s not more consistent (again, as with Creech).

  6. Dean Schneider says:

    In response to Mama Librarian: I’m not sure why writers have to be consistent. Is that just our way of expecting every DiCamillo book to be the same? I think each of her books has offered different pleasures. I love the story of Despereaux,the philosophical insights of of Edward Tulane, and the mysteriousness and lyrical beauty of The Magician’s Elephant. It’s a rare book that is determined to be distinguished in all of the Newbery criteria, but part of the fun of reading and reviewing books is using those criteria to consider books you think are close. Magician’s Elephant is not Depereaux or Edward Tulane or Winn Dixie, but it has its pleasures and elements that are distinguished. This is a quiet book, more intangible and interior. Not an especially great read-aloud, but certainly a superb work for a certain type of reader who enjoys the quiet and the introspective, and thus perhaps not a crowd pleaser, but a book I thought was special in its own way. I loved it. It’s not on my top-five-for-Newbery list, but it is in my longer list of favorite books of the year.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    I admire tremendously the way DiCamillo explores different ways of writing with each of her books. I remember someone once saying to me that there were two types of DiCamillo fans — those of the Winn Dixie camp and those of the Despereaux camp. And while I liked the former, I loved the latter. Yet this book seems to fit neither camp; it feels completely distinct to me.

    Like Nina, I found Adam Gopnick’s review very helpful and also Lisa Von Drasek’s at the Barnes and Noble Review. I agree with Lisa that there is a very strong feeling of Hans Christian Andersen in this tale; for me even moreso, it harkens back to the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. They are lush and often painfully sad. (The Nightingale and the Rose, for example.)

    There is wonderful imagery in this book, quite a bit of DiCamillo’s trademark humor of the wry and ironic sort (starting with that magician and that elephant), and it definitely stays with you. I vividly remember much of it, certain scenes in particular, months after reading it.

    After much hemming and hawing I put it on my goodreads Newbery list because I think it is really beautifully written even if I haven’t fallen in love with it as I did with Despereaux. I mean, is a book that is an enigma a bad thing? Or a good thing? I think, a good thing.

  8. I also admire Di Camillo and pick up each new book with great expectations. (Hard for any author to whet those perfectly every time.)

    The Magician’s Elephant delivers lovely language and many arresting images. (I was tickled by the downstairs neighbor comparing the boy’s appearances in the attic window to a bird in a cuckoo clock. And shocked by the elephant tumbling through the plaster of the auditorium ceiling.)

    Ultimately, this book got too dreamy for me. Every character (including the elephant) routinely got lost in visions of… the eventual resolution. Odd that.

    The book began to feel like a dream: a little random, a lot coincidental. So, while I applaud the language and magical mood — the plot, tension and any sense of “aha!” about the ending didn’t work for me. Alas.

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