Elephants are big with young readers


August 20, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Dazed by the "Jurassic Park" dinosaur craze? Maybe it's time to kick back and relax with some books about the largest living land animal, the elephant.

Elephants are a favorite of young zoo-goers, because of their size and the tricks they do with their trunks. But that appreciation grows tenfold when elephant fans get a glimpse of a herd's life in the wild.

* In "Elephants Calling" (Crown, $14, 36 pages, ages 7-11), biologist Katharine Payne gives readers an up-close look at these intelligent, social animals.

Ms. Payne, who has researched humpback whales and their songs, decided to study elephants almost by accident. A few years ago, she was standing near the elephant cage in a zoo and noticed a throbbing in the air. She returned later with recording equipment and discovered that the elephants were communicating by using infrasound -- a sound so low-pitched that human beings can't hear it.

She took off for Amboseli, in Kenya, where Cynthia Moss and Joyce Pool were studying elephant behavior. She joined them in their routines, going out in a truck and following the herds day after day.

"It is amazing how much you can learn about animals if you watch for a long time without disturbing them," Ms. Payne writes. "They do odd things, which at first you don't understand. Then gradually your mind opens to what it would be like to have different eyes, different ears, and different taste; different needs, different fears, and different knowledge from ours."

Ms. Payne took along tape recorders and cameras -- the majority of the book's fine photographs are hers -- and she brought back a look at elephant life as experienced by a calf, Raoul, who is born as the book opens.

Raoul is a member of the "R" family. The researchers in Amboseli have given all of the family --Raoul's sister, brother, mother, grandmother, two great-aunts, two aunts and six cousins -- names that start with "R".

Readers learn how Raoul's grandmother, the matriarch, guides and protects the herd. She communicates in deep rumbles that are a cross between purrs and roars.

Ms. Payne also shows what life will be like for Raoul in about 20 years, when he is roaming with other elephant bulls, "searching for fights or females." Her photo sequence of two bulls locking tusks is breathtaking.

* On the subject of elephants and fights, there's "The Elephant's Wrestling Match," by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Lodestar Books, $14, 30 pages, ages 5-8). Retold from a folk tale of Cameroon, it's about an elephant who challenges all other creatures to a wrestling match.

One by one, he dispatches the leopard, the crocodile and the rhinoceros. All the while, a monkey perched in a tree reports on the action, broadcasting the news with his talking drum. Call him Howard Cosell's predecessor.

Finally, a bat hears the monkey and accepts the elephant's challenge. After the elephant scoffs, she flies into his ear and flaps inside until he drops to the ground to rub his sore ear in the dirt.

"Tiny bat has wrestled elephant to the ground," Monkey reports. Then elephant reaches up, snatches the monkey's drum and smashes it.

Mr. Pinkney's scratchboard illustrations will be familiar to fans of his "Ballad of Belle Dorcas" and other award-winning works. Especially engaging is the elephant's furious expression in the final scene.

* "The Right Number of Elephants," story by Jeff Sheppard, pictures by Felicia Bond (HarperTrophy paperback, $4.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8), is a rarity -- a counting book with a sense of humor.

Ms. Bond, who illustrated "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" and "If You Give a Moose a Muffin," has captured a charming passel of pachyderms. They can do anything, from painting the living room ceiling to providing shade for kids at the beach.

Mr. Sheppard's premise is clever, but Ms. Bond's pictures carry the day. In one scene, two elephants crouch in the bushes, waiting to trip a "particularly unpleasant" girl with their trunks so that their friend, a young boy, can win a race. The elephants' conspiratorial glances are priceless.

* "The Trouble with Elephants," written and illustrated by Chris Riddell (HarperTrophy paperback, $4.95, 25 pages, ages 3-7), is another fun book. A young girl shows some of the problems elephants can cause when they're just trying to be friendly.

"They take all the sheets, and they snore elephant snores, which rattle the windowpanes." In that scene, the girl tries to curl up in one corner of the bed, back-to-back with her well-meaning, but sheet-hogging, elephant friend.

There are elephants breaking bikes and sneaking sips of lemonade (with their trunks, when you're not looking). There are elephants excelling at jump rope (the rope-turners swing their trunks, but they don't try double Dutch) and failing at hide-and-seek.

Through it all, the elephants are utterly charming.

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