The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
What if? Why not? Could it be?
When a fortuneteller's tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller's mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be narrated by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.
- Peter is told by the fortuneteller that the “truth is forever changing” (page 7). Do you agree? Can something that was once true become false? Are there important truths at the beginning of The Magician’s Elephant that aren’t true by the story’s end?
- The old magician keeps insisting that he intended to conjure a bouquet of lilies, not an elephant. But is he being honest? Why did he want to perform real magic that night in the Bliffendorf Opera House? Why couldn’t he undo his magic?
- What is the great lie that Vilna Lutz tells Peter? Why does he tell it? What lies do you think the old soldier tells himself?
- The elephant and the magician have been placed behind bars, but they aren’t the only confined characters in the novel. What restricts Madam LaVaughn? How free are Peter and Adele?
- One dark day Peter decides “that it was a terrible and complicated thing to hope, and that it might be easier, instead, to despair” (page 51). In what ways is despair easier than hope? Does Peter really believe that hope isn’t worth the fight? Do you?
- How does the arrival of the elephant stir up the people of Baltese? Why does the countess Quintet regret its arrival? How does she regain the upper hand?
- When does Peter realize that he doesn’t want to be a soldier anymore? What makes him turn against his military training (page 98)?
- Discuss the elephant’s predicament. How has she been failed by the magician’s trick? What is the magical transformation she seeks?
- Sister Marie has no doubt that every creature has its own name, even the elephant (page 90). Why are names so important? Would you be a different person if you had a different name?
- What does Gloria Matienne long for? Why does she fear she’ll never have it? When does she realize that she will?
- What promise does Peter make to the elephant? Why does he initially regret making it? How does he succeed in keeping it?
- An author makes a very important choice with the first line of any story. This story begins: "At the end of the century before last, in the market square of the city of Baltese, there stood a boy..."Why do you think that Kate DiCamillo made this choice? How long ago is the story set?
- Peter has been given money by Vilna Lutz to buy food, but he spends part of it on a fortuneteller instead. In "Jack and the Beanstalk," Jack makes a similar choice when he trades his cow for five magic beans instead of selling it. Can you think of any other stories that begin with an errand that is waylaid? What makes this an effective narrative device?
- When he is standing in line in the market, Peter overhears the fishmonger say, "Well, he wasn't much of a magician, and none of them was expecting much, you see—that's the thing. Nothing was expected.... He hadn't promised them nothing special, and they wasn't expecting it neither" (page 19).
- Who is the fishmonger talking about? What happened that was out of the ordinary? How does the unexpected event change the attitude of the city (see pages 55 and 59)? Does it affect everyone in the same way? Can you think of an unexpected event in your own life that changed you? How?
- In the middle of his usual trick to produce lilies, the magician adds the words of a different spell, even though he knows that "the words were powerful and also, given the circumstances, somewhat ill-advised. But he wanted to perform something spectacular" (pages 25–26). Why do you think he made this choice? Given what you know about what happened because of this choice, would you have done the same? Why?
- After her injury, Madam LaVaughn visits the prison every day to speak to the magician. Every day they say the same things to each other: the magician says that he intended only to produce flowers, and she responds that he doesn't understand that she is crippled. Madam LaVaughn's manservant, Hans, finally says to them: "It is important that you say what you mean to say. Time is too short. You must speak words that matter" (page 49). What inspires him to say this? What does he mean?
- When the elephant is on display, the entire city comes to see her. "And everyone, each person, had hopes and dreams, wishes for revenge, and desires for love. They stood together. They waited. And secretly, deep within their hearts, even though they knew it could not truly be so, they each expected that the mere sight of the elephant would somehow deliver them, would make their wishes and hopes and desires come true" (pages 113–114). Can you think of any people or events in contemporary society that have made people feel the same way? If the same thing were to happen tomorrow, do you think we would experience it differently? How?
- After Peter sees the elephant in the ballroom, he promises to help her. But as he walks away, he feels that it was the worst kind of promise to make (page 130)Why? Have you ever done the same?
- Faith and hope are central themes in this story. Peter believes that if he can find the elephant, he will find his sister. This faith overcomes even his doubt that he can keep his promise. As he asks the other characters to join him, they each believe because he asks them to. The elephant believes most of all: "In the ballroom of the countess Quintet, when the elephant opened her eyes and saw the boy standing before her, she was not at all surprised. She thought simply, You. Yes, you. I knew that you would come for me" (page 173). How would the story have unfolded if Peter had not believed? What other examples of faith do you find in the story?
- When Peter eats Gloria's stew, he begins to cry. Why? Is it just because he has been so hungry, or is it something more (pages 136–137)?
- When the magician goes to reverse his spell, he knows that "There is as much magic in making things disappear as there is in making them appear. More, perhaps. The undoing is almost always more difficult than the doing" (page 185). Have you ever had to undo something you wish you had never done? Do you agree with the statement?
- After the elephant has disappeared, the narrator says, "And that, after all, is how it ended. Quietly. In a world muffled by the gentle, forgiving hand of snow" (page 193).
- What did you think of the book's ending? Do all the characters have happy endings? Do you believe each character is where he or she belongs by the end? If you were the author, would you change anything about the story's ending? Why?