Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Elephants Know, by Eric Dinerstein -- an adventure, a call to action, a window to our world (ages 9-12)

Fourth & fifth grade students across Berkeley are telling me that What Elephants Know is the best book they've read all year. They feel like they're right alongside Nandu as he rides his elephant Devi Kali into the jungle of Nepal. Kids are responding to this as an adventure story, a call to action and a window to a different part of our world.
What Elephants Know
by Eric Dinerstein
Disney-Hyperion, 2016
Audiobook narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Recorded Books, 2016
Your local library
ages 9-12
*best new book*
Nandu dreams of becoming a mahout, or elephant trainer. Orphaned as a baby, Nandu has been raised by Subba-sahib, the head of the king's elephant stable in the southernmost part of Nepal. As the story opens, King Birenda comes to their stable for his yearly tiger hunt. Nandu joins the hunt determined to make his father proud; but when he realizes that the king will shoot a mother tiger with young cubs, Nandu interferes.

Perhaps because his royal hunt was ruined, the king decides to shut down the elephant stables. And so Subba-sahib sends Nandu away to boarding school to better prepare for the changing future. Nandu is devastated without the support of home, especially his elephant Devi Kali and his best friend Rita. This is even harder as he faces taunting and discrimination from other students.

Readers are drawn into this world, identifying with Nandu as he struggles to save the elephant stables and home he loves. Dinerstein, the former chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, lived near the national parks of Bardia and Chitwan in Nepal for many years studying tiger populations. He brings an intimate knowledge of this region to this story. Yet the story does not come across as didactic or informational; Dinerstein successfully keeps the focus on Nandu's coming of age and discovery of his own power.

My students relate to Nandu's experiences of prejudice and his determination to help animals, both threatened wild species and an ill-treated elephant. Baba, a Buddhist holy man, helps give Nandu perspective:
"A question I sometimes ask myself: ‘When to act on what you see and when to accept what you see around you? I do not know the answer to this question. What I do know, Nandu, is that you had the courage to act.’" (p. 175)
My students and I did not have any prior knowledge about this area, and so I prepared this short slideshow to help show them where the story takes place. I hope you like it.

I especially love the audiobook for What Elephants Know. As Audiofile Magazine writes in their review:
Narrator Kirby Heyborne immerses himself in the character of Nandu...(His) earnest voice and brisk pace deposit listeners into the midst of each episode. He exudes Nandu's respect for Subba-sahib and the elephants. When needed, he punches out Nandu's thoughts--be it indignation at schoolyard bullies, warning cries to a tigress, or enthusiasm over mutual interests with his teacher.
Nandu's story has stayed with me, drawing me to learn more about this part of the world. As I wrote to several friends when I recommended this book, I wish I could buy a copy for every fourth & fifth grade classroom. Please seek out this special book.

Many thanks to Eric Dinerstein for helping me make sure the images accurately portrayed Nandu's world. And special thanks to my reading friend Armin Arethna for sharing her love of this book. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Disney-Hyperion. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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