The Elephant’s Garden, by Jane Ray; Boxer Books, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Many cultures have their version of the garden thief story–Russian folklore tells of Tsarevitch Ivan whose golden apples are stolen by the mythical Firebird, and food theft leads to a most unhappy ending in Nankichi Niimi’s powerful Gon, the Little Fox (1932). And of course, there’s the biblical tale of the snake tempting Eve with a forbidden apple in the garden of Eden. These aren’t those effortlessly cheerful happily ever after tales–these are stories of greed, failure, and attempts at redemption, with varying degrees of success, and Jane Ray’s retelling of a traditional Indian folktale follows in that tradition.
Here, a little girl named Jasmine discovers a brightly festooned elephant stealing from her garden, and once confronted, the elephant explains that the fruit in his garden is inedible. To prove it, he whisks the astounded child to his faraway cloud garden, where massive kiwis, strawberries, and peaches fill every corner, but sadly, they’re only precious jewels and of no use to a hungry elephant. Upon returning home, Jasmine tells her family about the magnificent sky garden and though she begs them not to tell anyone, the whole village finds out about the elephant’s treasures. What follows is a surprisingly elegant exploration of greed and selfishness. Ray’s vibrant, jewel-toned, collages evoke a lush Indian fantasy world, and the double-page spread of Jasmine grasping the tail of the elephant recall’s a similar nocturnal flight in Joanne Ryder and Amy Schwartz’s Night Flight or any of Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes.
A worthy addition to any folktale collection, The Elephant’s Garden subtly invokes Ghandi’s summation on avarice: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”