Princess Beatrix’s father has been sent a one-horned creature as a gift. The palace is already home to an exotic menagerie, but the unruly Beatrix is convinced the new arrival is a unicorn and couldn’t be more excited.
Unfortunately the ‘big, bulky creature with a stumpy horn’ turns out to be a rhinoceros called Genda, and Beatrix isn’t the only one who’s disappointed. But when her father decides to pit Genda against his elephant in combat, Beatrix realizes just how much she cares about the lonely creature and tries to change her father’s mind.
Her protests fall on deaf ears, but all is not lost. Genda and the elephant show more respect for each other than their human captors have (spoiler alert: you can’t make animals fight if they don’t want to) and at last Genda is treated with more dignity and care.
This poignant and beautifully illustrated picturebook was inspired by a well-known work of art – Durer’s woodcut print of the rhinoceros sent from India to the king of Portugal in 1515 – and the historical and ethical themes running through it give it depth and impact. Sensitive to the needs of modern audiences, Genda’s tale in this book has a happy ending, but an informative endnote tells readers about the real Genda, whose story took a different turn.
With its sumptuously decorated fabrics, rich colour palette and interest in surface pattern and design, Simona Mulazzani’s artwork conjures a flavour of the period, and there are intriguing details to be spotted on every spread. Changing viewpoints keep us alert and engaged: Genda’s arrival is viewed through a window (reminding us that even princesses may not go where they please) and sympathy for his captivity is evoked by a floor-level view through iron bars.
In The Most Famous Rhinoceros, Dianne Hofmeyr tells an unusual and potentially challenging story with confidence, sensitivity and style. Vividly evocative, with enough description to bring a vanished world to life without overwhelming young audiences, this book reads well aloud and will prompt thoughtful discussion across a wide age range.