Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Wednesday, May 30, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Zola's Elephant

Houghton Mifflin: Zola's Elephant by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Houghton Mifflin: Zola's Elephant by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Houghton Mifflin: Zola's Elephant by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Houghton Mifflin: Zola's Elephant by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Zola's Elephant

by Randall de Sève, illus. by Pamela Zagarenski

In Randall de Sève and Pamela Zagarenski's first picture book collaboration, a nameless young girl imagines that her next-door neighbor lives in a stunning, vibrant world... with a pet elephant. Intricate and beautiful, Zola's Elephant displays a perfect balance of text and illustration while asking all readers to remember that what we think isn't necessarily what is true.

A young girl looks out the window at a family moving in next door. A mini, apple-cheeked Pierrot, the girl is dressed whimsically in harlequin-style red-and-white checked pants and a ruffled collar, holding a toy elephant wearing a red-and-white striped hat identical to the one atop her pigtails. The new next-door neighbors stand in front of a massive stack of boxes while, in the background, two movers struggle with a large crate marked "fragile."

"There’s a new girl next door," the girl's narration begins. "Her name is Zola. I know because our mothers met this morning and decided we should be friends. But Zola already has a friend. I know because I saw the big box." One might wonder what kind of friend would arrive in a "big box" but the girl is certain she knows what it is: "You need a big box to move your elephant."

Peering through the window, the girl imagines an elephant curled up inside the enormous box. The acrylic-on-wood illustration depicts her imaginary world in the colors of a nebula, everything in shades of blue, green and gold. An otherworldly star chart overlays, with words like "magic" or "believe" in place of the more common words like "equator" or "elliptic."

The nebula-like palette continues onto the next spread as the Zola she imagines throws slices of toast to her elephant: "You also need to feed your elephant as soon as it arrives.... I know Zola's feeding her elephant now because I smell toast. Lots of toast." But the next page turn shows the reader what's really happening. The glorious colors are gone, replaced by doleful blues and grays. Zola sits alone, using the big box as a table for her toast and tea. With the next page turn, we are again back in the world of imagination. This back and forth continues as the reader is shown the glorious, fanciful scenes the narrator's mind creates as she comes up with excuses to not go meet Zola and her elephant. Hearing hammering, she imagines Zola and her elephant are building a clubhouse; in reality, an adult is assembling furniture while Zola holds her hands over her ears.

The narrator is sure Zola's clubhouse is "very cozy with pillows and curtains and a carpet of stars.... Perfect for sharing stories." And, in her imagination, it is: the clubhouse looks like a circus tent and Zola naps tucked into the elephant's trunk. "I like stories," she thinks, "and clubhouses and playing hide-and-seek and taking bubble baths with elephants. I really like elephants." And so, there are no more excuses--she simply must meet Zola and her elephant.

The narrator walks across the yard to Zola's front door and knocks. The girl is invited in, only to discover that there is no elephant--the box holds a couch. "Okay, so maybe Zola doesn't have an elephant. But do you know what she does have? A new friend."

Bestselling author Randall de Sève worked on Zola's Elephant for years, trying Zola many different ways, "including using alternating narrators." When "the versions got too tangled up," she "put the story away for a while" to clear her head. When she returned to Zola and her elephant, she simplified the story, creating the delightful and concise narrative Zola is now. Caldecott Honoree (Sleep Like a Tiger) Pamela Zagarenski's striking acrylic on wood illustrations work perfectly with the text, telling both the written story and the story in between. Of Zagarenski's illustrations, de Sève said, "I don't even know where to begin gushing: Perhaps at the vibrant colors and endless patterns on every page... the stark contrast between real... and imaginary... worlds, the timeless designs of costumes and architecture, the compositions that keep your eyes moving and searching and never growing tired... Or how brilliantly Pamela imagined this short but complex story."

And complex the illustrations most certainly are: visual themes travel from page to page; there are secondary and tertiary storylines in the illustrations and in the interwoven designs; and the endpapers expand upon de Sève's tale. "I always imagine endpapers as pictorial extensions of the story," Zagarenski said. "While I painted these pages I personally experienced the 2017 solar eclipse. It felt like a larger-than-life event." Zagarenski included the sun, the moon and the stars throughout the picture book to build on that event and as a "reminder" of "our constant and mysterious companions." In the endpapers, she painted the sun, the moon and the eclipse in the sky, "both day and night happening simultaneously."

Zola's Elephant's easy-to-read text gives many access points to young readers while the material itself poses grander questions for older readers to mull over. Zagarenski's illustrative interpretation of the text is as vibrant and intricate as the text itself, certain to draw in pre-readers and readers alike. A deceptively simple tale, Zola's Elephant has depth to consider and explore. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9781328886293, October 9, 2018

Houghton Mifflin: Zola's Elephant by Randall de Sève, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Randall de Sève: Fascinated by the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Randall de Sève is the author of the New York Times bestseller Toy Boat, as well as The Duchess of Whimsy, Mathilda and the Orange Balloon, Peanut and Fifi Have a Ball and A Fire Truck Named Red. Randall fully admits that she's gone through life thinking that every big box really could contain an elephant. It's her runaway imagination that has also inspired her teaching of young children, both at the Blue School and Saint Ann's School in New York City, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Visit her at Her newest book for young readers, Zola's Elephant (HMH Books for Young Readers), will be available on October 9.

What was your inspiration for this story?

For as long as I can recall, I've been fascinated by the idea that the stories we tell ourselves are not always the truth--yet too often we give these stories the power to dictate important decisions and impact our experiences and relationships.

This is where my head was when our new neighbors moved in. They came with a daughter [who's] my daughter's age, and lots of boxes. There was some excitement from the parents (despite the girls' mutual wariness) about a potential friendship; there was also some excitement from my husband: seeing a large box being lugged inside, he joked, "R--'s tiger is here!"

And I dashed upstairs to begin Zola's Elephant.

Why an elephant, specifically?

Good question--especially since the story came from a comment about a tiger! The first drafts were about a girl and her tiger. And (cool side note) I had Pamela's Sleep Like a Tiger in mind in those early days, way before selling this story to HMH or its editor, Ann Rider, showing it, unbeknownst to me, to Pamela. Ultimately, however, I felt like the story needed something bigger than a tiger-sized box to grab its narrator's attention and get her going. An elephant-sized crate was just the thing!

Did you have contact Pamela or give any specific instructions for the illustrations?

When I write, I always have pictures in mind and describe them in my first drafts. This allows me to pace a story, to avoid overwriting and to leave room for the art to help tell it. Before a story goes to its illustrator, however, all but the narrative art notes come out, so that the artist can bring their own vision to the piece. I had no direct contact with Pamela through this process (standard practice) and only sent a few queries through our editor. We've still never met, but we exchanged love letters over the holidays when our jobs were done.

How did you feel upon seeing Pamela's illustrations for the first time?

At first, I was speechless, in awe. The art is so full of whimsy and delight, with new surprises and treasures on every page. I'm guessing children will be over the moon in love with it.

Who are you hoping will read this book? What do you want readers to come away with from Zola's Elephant?

I've written and spoken about how picture books can be enjoyed on so many levels, by people of all ages. I hope Zola's Elephant entertains children and their adults; I also hope it gently nudges readers to rethink some of their own fixed narratives.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I'm wrestling with the idea of forgiveness... and Vikings. --Siân Gaetano

Pamela Zagarenski: Drawn to Paint

Pamela Zagarenski is the winner of two Caldecott Honors. The books she has illustrated have also been Booklist Editor's Choices and winners of Bank Street's Claudia Lewis Award, and have been translated into many languages. As well as illustrating picture books, she creates paintings and has a gift card line. Her newest book for young readers, Zola's Elephant (HMH Books for Young Readers), will be available on October 9. She lives in Connecticut. Visit her on Instagram and Twitter.

What materials did you use for the illustrations in this book? Are these the materials you regularly use? What draws you to them for your work?

My illustrations are created with acrylic paint on wood and yes, these are materials I regularly use. I love painting. It is hard to say why I am drawn to paint. I have loved it as far back as I can remember. It is much like being drawn to a particular kind of landscape that feels like home: like the old stone walls, red cedars, oak trees and the Atlantic Ocean, paint just feels like part of me.

You have illustrated a number of books written by others, as well as your own written works--do you prefer one over the other? Do the processes differ?

I love words. It has always been impossible for me to hear a word without "seeing" it. When I receive a story from an author I read it over and over, as if I am memorizing it. The words talk to me and, as my contribution to the conversation, I give the words color and a visual life. The story and I need each other equally for the conversation. Whether it is words that I have written or the words from another, it does not really matter. I imagine that the white space between the words reveals imaginary and secret things--with illustrations, I fill in those blanks. When I both write and illustrate, the only real difference is that the conversation between words and images happens simultaneously. The words can tell the pictures what they want to show and then the pictures tell the words what they want to say. Back and forth, like a pendulum, I swing from pen to paint as the book takes shape.

How did you make the choices you did in order to have Zola's Elephant World be different from Zola's Real World?

I felt Zola's real world was new, lonely and frightening. So, I wanted it to feel blue, empty, angular and a bit harsh in contrast with the narrator's soft and colorful life imagined of Zola. The life of one having an elephant as a best friend.

You also create beautifully illustrated greeting cards. Is the process of creation very different from card to book? Is there one you prefer?

A card is simply a two-page book. I admit picture books will always be my favorite and always have been--they are just a more complicated puzzle and I like the challenge. But words and images... and images and words... I am the grateful, humbled puppet of both worlds. --Siân Gaetano

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