The Galley Way: The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant

The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant by, Michelle Cuevas

What to make of The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant? To say that it’s original would be a bit of an understatement. In this book our hero, “Pigeon Jones”, is abandoned by his parents and is discovered and adopted by a Circus Elephant with a penchant for painting. Pigeon spends the rest of his life living only on the back of his elephant, “Birch”.

This book is blessed with illustrations by Ed Young (Caldecott winner,Lon Po Po), and also fun charts and graphs, such as a pie chart of various “Elephant Jobs”.

But, probably the best thing about this story is the language; in her debut novel for children Ms. Cuevas provides us with many lovely passages such as:

“‘rocks are just rocks,’ he’d said, ‘until the day someone imagines them as a palace'”
and
“The most glorious works of art, the ones that bring the purest joy- perhaps they need not to be touched or known, but seen only with the heart”

In fact, there is a lot of higher level philosophizing and very poetic lines, so story doesn’t read much like Children’s book at all, but some sort of fable for adults.

While there are touches of other Children’s authors and books like, Roald DahlThe Graveyard Book, (and The Jungle Book from which that book was inspired, and even Disney’s Dumbo, with our maternal Birch, it is hard to see myself recommending this to a child.

Of course, if it is a book for adults it is still in a weird gray area: too short to be a novella, to long for a short story. It seems that Ms. Cuevas finds herself in that terrible trap of not being easily “labeled”

Aside from all the issues of how to label the book, ultimately, the book seems a little unfinished and uncertain. With all of the poetic passages, and philosophical notions put forward there isn’t much time to flesh out the characters fully, and sometimes events like the rescue of Dahlia and reformation of the Ringmaster seem a bit rushed and tossed-off.

All in all, The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant is a noble effort but still missing that thing that really grabs you, and for a book meant for children that’s probably the most important thing of all.

Note: This book was a Goodreads First Read.

Goodreads rating: **

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