The best middle grade novels featuring elephants

Uma Krishnaswami Author Of The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic
By Uma Krishnaswami

Who am I?

I was born and grew up in India and I’ve always been fascinated by elephants. When I wrote The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, it felt natural to have Mini, the elephant, become part of its world. She’s not the main character, yet her presence raises questions about the place of these amazing animals in our world and in our hearts. I picked five titles in which elephants are secondary characters, raising similar questions for readers about who these extraordinary creatures are and why we should care. Curiously, I couldn’t find a single novel featuring African elephants. 


I wrote...

The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic

By Uma Krishnaswami, Abigail Halpin (illustrator),

Book cover of The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic

What is my book about?

Dini is thrilled! Her favorite Indian movie star Dolly Singh’s in town for the American opening of her latest greatest release. Could life be better than this? Dini enlists her friends and starts the kind of planning only a stellar fan can pull off—a rose petal cake? Dancing? No problem. Wait. What? Dolly’s lost her passport? And now she wants a parade? If Dini lets Dolly take things into her own starry hands, that would almost certainly lead to a sweetly perfect disaster! And whoa! Look! Was that really an elephant heading up Connecticut Avenue? A middle grade romp that transforms the Nation’s Capital into a Bollywood film set. 

The books I picked & why

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The One and Only Ivan

By Katherine Applegate, Patricia Castelao (illustrator),

Book cover of The One and Only Ivan

Why this book?

Not one but two elephants star in this novel voiced in poetic vignettes by Ivan the gorilla. The animals are held in neighboring “domains” in a grotesque suburban mall setting. Ivan’s heart and mind drive the story, but compassion is made real by Stella, the older elephant. Her relationship with Ivan sheds light on their desperate circumstances. Ruby, the baby elephant, serves as a little beacon of hope, drawing the best from Ivan. Inspired by a true story, this book raised so many questions in my mind—about animal captivity, home, friendship, family, and community.


An Elephant in the Garden: Inspired by a True Story

By Michael Morpurgo,

Book cover of An Elephant in the Garden: Inspired by a True Story

Why this book?

I love historical fiction, and I love stories within stories and this novel is both! It’s set at the end of World War II, just after the Allied bombing of Dresden. We’re following 16-year-old Elizabeth, her Mutti, her little brother Karli, and a downed Swiss-Canadian airman as they flee to safety near Heidelberg in the company of—yes, really—an elephant! A story of survival, of endurance, of building lives. The human relationships, in a dark and dangerous time, are brightened by the unexpected presence of one remarkable animal. 


The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

By Nizrana Farook,

Book cover of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

Why this book?

In Serendib—doesn’t the name alone ring with poetry?—we meet the young thief of this title, Chaya, who steals from the rich to help the poor. In the company of Neel, her loyal friend, and Nour, the daughter of a rich merchant, Chaya finds herself being hunted by the king’s soldiers for stealing the queen’s jewels. And oh, yes, she also walked off with Ananda, the royal elephant. The ancient Sri Lankan setting is vividly drawn—with jackfruit and papayas as well as snakes and leeches. The elephant is in turn the object of theft, the vehicle by which the kids escape into the jungle, a sentient, perceptive animal presence, and an important ally. Surprise twists, adventure, and action in a rare, stunning setting. 


Chained

By Lynne Kelly,

Book cover of Chained

Why this book?

I was lucky enough to read this book when it was still a manuscript. It’s the story of 10-year old Hastin, driven by poverty but also by his impulsiveness and youthful optimism. Running away from home to make money to help his mother and sick sister, Hastin ends up far from his village in India, and in the clutches of a cruel circus owner. He also becomes keeper to a baby elephant, Nandita. As an outsider to the setting of this book, Lynne Kelly dug in, persevered, and did the hard work of writing the story with respect and care. The baby elephant is a pure delight. 


One Amazing Elephant

By Linda Oatman High,

Book cover of One Amazing Elephant

Why this book?

Linda’s a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I’ve taught since 2006. I love it when my reading mind seems to make a conversation out of the books I’ve read. For me, this novel seemed to be speaking to all the other books on this list—through the large, tender presence of the elephant, Queenie Grace, especially in the chapters written in her first-person voice; the growing affection between the child, Lily, and the elephant; the shifting family dynamics, so that blame and guilt give way to communication and empathy; all kinds of chains and ways to loosen them and be free. I even found a surprising little nugget of historical information in the author’s note. 


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