2 Literary Novels Find the Poetry in Animal Rescue – The New York Times

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By Margarita Engle

By Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Benji Davies

Is it justifiable to worry as much about animal welfare as regarding human welfare in times of suffering? Is it moral to stop and consider the plight of an elephant or a puffin as human refugees flee their homes?

Two marvelous new books for middle grade readers offer a convincing answer: Looking out for animals is tied to looking out for our fellow humans. The same systems of power endanger all marginalized beings.

Most children intuitively understand this. It’s no accident that so many children’s classics — “Charlotte’s Web, ” “Old Yeller, ” “Shiloh, ” “Where the Red Fern Grows” — feature young people working for animal justice. But there has long been a flatness to the identities of the kids doing the rescuing. Put succinctly in 2016 by Marley Dias , the then preteen founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks: “I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs. ”

“Singing With Elephants” cover image.
Oriol Vidal

In her tender, funny, far-reaching new novel in verse, Margarita Engle (whose “Enchanted Air” won the Pura Belpré Award) expands our notion of who gets to do the rescuing in children’s animal stories. Having recently moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., from Cuba, 11-year-old Oriol will be teased for her accent, misses her recently deceased abuelita and feels generally adrift in her new language plus social world. Then she makes two friends who give her life meaning: a bilingual poet who has herself just moved to town (a fictionalized version from the real-life Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) and an elephant named Chandra. Oriol’s parents run a veterinary clinic that has brought them into contact with the elephant, also far from home and adrift, exploited by the entertainment industry. (“Singing With Elephants” is set in 1947, when live animals were frequently used in film; though the practice is less common now, sanctuaries are still filled with castoff Hollywood apes, elephants and big cats. )

Via elegantly efficient narrative poetry, Engle weaves themes of longing and belonging, of communication and the sorts of attachment that are too deep ever to be communicated with words:

The poet switches to inglés
just to help me — but animals
don’t recognize my effort
to make sense
of letters like a y
that sounds like my ll
and an h that is not silent
and a k that does not even exist
in Spanish — so todas las bestiecitas
begin to bark, bleat, quack , and grunt a humorous animal opera…

By presenting two story lines in parallel, Engle deepens both: Mistral tries to teach Oriol how to speak English without losing track of the girl Cuban identity, while Oriol tries to get inside the mind of a confined elephant that has no opportunity to communicate with members of her own species. Oriol learns from the elephant’s gentle 16-year-old Nepalese caretaker that Asian elephants can tell when another herd is approaching by the distant sound vibrations absorbed through their enormous feet, and she starts to wonder what her new friend’s experience of Southern California must be like:

Now, imagine how scary it must sound
to the skin of her feet, as they listen
to the ground, whenever a movie star’s
fancy sports car roars uphill
with visitors from Hollywood.

When Oriol later discovers that baby elephants are often trained to grab their own tongues with their trunks to make a sound almost like “Hello, ” to entertain human audiences, she is outraged:

What would Gabriela Mistral say
if she knew language was being used
for torture?

“Singing With Elephants” isn’t just beautiful poetry and a fascinating consideration of conversation across boundaries; it’s also a taut rescue story. After Chandra gives birth in order to twins, one of her babies disappears — and Oriol suspects she’s been taken. She must use all she has learned about English and elephant ways to locate the particular young creature and mount a petition drive to reunite her with her mother and brother.

Outsider girl plus outsider elephant, outsider poet and outsider trainer find connection and community whenever their stories collide.

The particular villain of Engle’s novel is Blaze, an establishment movie star — white, well connected, wealthy — who has abducted the baby elephant for a “filmmaking experiment. ” The white boy isn’t the hero this time around. The marginalized people and animals that band together to check the systems of power that will endanger them are the heroes.

Of course , empathetic Oriol doesn’t see herself that way. She just did what the girl knew was right for the particular elephants she’d grown to love:

But really
all I want
is fairness,
he just has to admit
that mimicry is not
language, and tricks
don’t justify
and families
should not be

Benji Davies

The latest tale of animal adventure plus rescue from Michael Morpurgo (“War Horse”) is written in a more classic style. “The Puffin Keeper” is so classic, in fact , that it begins on a dark and stormy night.

Benjamin Postlethwaite, the lighthouse keeper associated with Puffin Island — part of the Scilly Isles in Cornwall, England — saves 30 people whose schooner, the Pelican, has broken apart and is sinking after being driven onto the rocks by rough seas. Among the grateful survivors is our young narrator, Allen, whose life will be forever changed. Throughout an uneasy childhood (involving a cold nanny and a severe boarding school headmaster), Allen writes letters to his rescuer. Ben never replies.

In the library during his last term at college, Allen happens upon a 1926 article about their rescue, in which Ben explains why he refused to accept a medal for his bravery: “It were done because it were needed to be carried out. There were lives needed saving. And there’s an end to it. Life isn’t about medals and all that. ”

This selflessness persuades Allen to visit Ben, that has lived a solitary life, filling his days with painting. The lighthouse has been shut down for financial reasons, making the old caretaker feel aimless. Allen can relate, and together they find which means nursing an injured puffin back to health: “Nothing mattered more to us than to see him fly. ”

Once the puffin soars away, Ben reveals why he didn’t respond to Allen’s letters: He can’t read. So Allen extends his stay to teach him. Before long, he’s sharing with Ben his favorite books: “Robinson Crusoe” and “Treasure Island. ” Ben, in return, tutors Allen in artwork.

As the years go by, Allen joins the Navy, is usually captured by the Germans during World War II, spends time in the prison camp in Poland and, when the war is over, returns again to England and Puffin Island. Eventually he marries and has children, and he and his family join Ben as caretakers of newly thriving flocks associated with puffins. Like Oriol, Allen strikes a balance between admiring animals and helping them to live without human interference: “The Puffin Keeper’s Law, we call it. We leave the puffins be. ”

The author’s note discloses that Allen is Allen Lane, who founded Penguin Books and its Pelican imprint before creating Puffin Books. (He also happened to be Morpurgo’s father in law. )

Propelled from the sumptuous full-color art of Benji Davies (“The Storm Whale”), “The Puffin Keeper” is a page-turner young readers can start and finish curled up on the couch over one stormy afternoon.

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