A new book by Leo Timmers is something to celebrate and his latest, an eccentric seafaring extravaganza with a big heart, has all the makings of a classic. The storyline is simple: as other vessels and their crews join a shipwrecked elephant on a tiny rock, bigger and more elaborate constructions must be created to house the island’s growing population, but Timmers’ illustrations are so full of narrative detail that even the youngest audiences will soon be creating their own augmented versions of the tale.
Timmers’ artwork grabs our attention with bright, punchy images, but there’s depth here, too, fueling immersive contemplation and return visits. The animals and their diverse vessels are depicted in a bright palette, but the sea has more complex (and often darker) moods. Tactile and evocative seascapes are accompanied by anthropomorphic descriptions: introduced as a ‘friend’, the sea becomes ‘boisterous’ and eventually ‘loses its temper’, with disastrous results for the island’s residents, and much use is made of white space, allowing the characters and their actions to take centre stage.
James Brown’s text is described as an English version of the original rather than a translation, and does a stylish job of cueing and supporting the story unfolding in Timmers’ artwork. Printed in a large, clear font, it includes rich vocabulary – ancient mariner, catastrophic equipment failure, built-in snorkel – that will engage and stretch young children who enjoy words (and whose families are not deterred by them). Understated text accompanies artwork telling a slightly different tale: “Arnold stepped aboard gently. Oops! He had put his foot in it again” is accompanied by images showing Arnold sinking the old sea dog’s boat by going straight through the bottom, and there are other intentional mismatches between words and pictures for children to notice and enjoy.
Alongside the fantasy and slapstick humour runs a current of something more serious. In a perilous watery world, diverse animals survive and thrive by working together for the common good – and if this sounds like a climate-themed fable, those ideas are, by implication, present. But although there are lessons to be learned from the animals’ constructive teamwork and optimism, there’s no moralizing in this book. Timmers encourages his audience to develop caring, problem-solving attitudes by focusing on high spirits, humour and communal enterprise, rather than delivering instructions.
Although Elephant Island is marketed at children aged 2-5 years, those in Key Stage One (5-7 years) will enjoy it, too. It would also make an interesting starting point for discussions with older readers about problem-solving, leadership and teamwork.