Saturday, July 31, 2010


The winner of The Elephant Keeper is... Emily H.

Thanks to those who entered. You should all go get a copy from your library. If you need more insight into the story to sell you on it, here is an essay from the author on his inspiration behind the novel.

In His Own Words
Christopher Nicholson, author of

Exactly where The Elephant Keeper spilled from isn’t easy to say, but its origins seem to lay a long way back. If it is, to some extent, a celebration of the English countryside, it must be significant that I was brought up right on the edges of London; that, if I walked up a nearby hill, I could look in one direction over the vast expanse of the city, dark and, in those days, still subject to dense smog, while the other direction offered a view of unbroken green breached only by the spire of a distant church. The novel also emerges from a fascination with the exotic, and as a little boy I used to fantasize about zoo animals roaming the English countryside. In my bedroom I had a long procession of carved elephants, and downstairs, on the hall chest, lay a curving ivory tusk, half a meter long, fashioned into a paper-knife and engraved with the Nicholson coat of arms. I still have this grotesque object.

In 1984 I visited Nepal to walk round the Annapurna mountain bloc, and afterwards traveled to the Chitwan National Park, where I rode on an elephant for the first time. It was during this period that I made a series of radio documentaries for the BBC on the relationship between humans and animals; this work helped develop my thoughts on the differences between human and animal language. About the same time, I happened to visit the stately home of Longleat, in south-west England, where a safari park had been started, and I remember how excited I was at the sight of giraffes grazing in the park, which was landscaped in the mid 18th century. They looked perfectly matched to their surroundings. Although there were no elephants at Longleat, it was easy to imagine that there might have been; and maybe this thought eventually gave rise to that part of The Elephant Keeper set on a country estate.

During my twenties and thirties I began to collect old natural history books, especially those of the 19th and late 18th centuries - which I loved (and still love) for their eccentric illustrations and wonderfully romantic language. When I began to write the novel, one of my aims was simply to enjoy swimming in some 18th century language. The first draft was written in a whirl & probably took no more than six months, but there was a lot of reworking and rewriting. I carried out a good deal of library research into obscure 18th century texts on such matters as veterinary science, horse-breeding, gout, and I visited a number of 18th century estates for descriptive detail. The great country house and deer park at Petworth, in southern England, had some influence on the deer park in the novel. I also spent time with two elephant keepers at a zoo that held, in addition to several female elephants, a very large male. Male elephants are dangerous creatures; this one was not only ill-tempered but half-mad. I learnt a lot about the phenomenon of ‘must’ or ‘musth’, in which male elephants are attacked by a kind of frenzy; I used this in the novel.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

GIVEAWAY: The Elephant Keeper

Once again Harper Collins Publishers are offering my readers a giveaway! This time it's a copy of The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson.

I wasn't familiar with the title, which is now being released in paperback, but there are a lot of positive comments surrounding it. The highly talented poet Nikki Giovanni said The Elephant Keeper is "the best book I've read in the last twenty years or so". High praise indeed!

The story is set in Bristol, England in 1766 as two baby elephants arrive from India nearly dead. An unassuming stable boy, Tom, finds himself their new caretaker and thus begins a remarkable bond.

My copy is en route and I'm anxious to read it.

To be entered in the giveaway, leave a comment sharing your favorite novel featuring an animal as one of the main characters. Charlotte's Web tops my list, which would also include Seabiscuit and Water for Elephants.

Giveaway is open to U.S. and Canadian residents. A winner will be chosen on Saturday, July 31, 2010.

Tweet this post for a second entry into the giveaway. Copy and paste the message below (and leave me a comment to say you did so):

Book giveaway from @k8ie: The Elephant Keeper

Friday, July 16, 2010

How does your garden grow?

The latest lunchtime routine in our house is for J to have a PB & J picnic in the living room, watching DVR'ed Sesame Street, while I get some "me" time (or, more often, some baby time!).

Today's episode featured Mother Goose's Mary Mary (quite contrary) who planted a flourishing garden surrounding Oscar the Grouch's trash can abode. Aside from drawing smiles and compliments, the garden also provided opportunities for learning: reciting the nursery rhyme as well as discussing what gardens need in order to bloom.

It reminded me of this article I read recently in School Library Journal, discussing a new initiative in schools to incorporate gardening into the curriculum. According to a recent study from the U.K., gardening in schools encourages a healthy, active lifestyle, teaches teamwork and responsibility, and amazingly also "help[s] increase scientific knowledge and understanding, as well as improve[s] literacy and numeracy".

An independent research organization surveyed 1300 teachers and conducted in-depth observations of 10 schools to evaluate the impact of gardening in school. Results of the studies were incredibly positive. Teachers felt that gardening provided an opportunity to give their lessons a hands-on, real-world perspective, which "improved students' readiness to learn, encouraged them to take greater control of their own learning, and helped them become more active in seeking knowledge and solving problems".
I hope this kind of creative curriculum development is a growing (ha ha) trend in American education. Certainly, there is much more discussion these days about meeting kids where they are: experimenting with various teaching methods to aid students who may not learn in a traditional classroom setting. It seems that our public schools are taking cues from the success of more non-traditional forms of education like Reggio Emilia and Montessori.

One teacher interviewed in the study noted that gardening provided a positive contrast from the traditional teaching environment, which can be "frustrating for those who have difficulty focusing or other barriers to learning".

An inspiring book on this topic, and one that my husband uses with his middle schoolers each year, is Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. It is a simple, yet moving story of how a community garden in a low-income neighborhood changes many individuals' lives. I highly recommend it--actually, all of Fleischman's books are gems. He's one of those authors who write with such beautiful simplicity that his characters and stories remain prominently with
you for a long time.

I hope you are enjoying some great summer reads as well as sampling some tastes of the season from a local garden. If you have thoughts on gardening, especially with children, please share!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird Anniversary

To Kill A Mockingbird 50th Anniversary

Thanks to my friends at Harper Perennial for reminding me that Sunday, July 11 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. They are making a big celebration out of it here, including the publication of a special 50th anniversary edition. I couldn't let this pass by without a mention. What a special and spectacular book. And what about Gregory Peck in the movie? So powerful. I think To Kill a Mockingbird may be the only instance in the history of turning books into movies that the movie actually does the book justice.

I'm not sure how old I was when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think I was probably in middle school or junior high. I remember it being summertime, so the sweltering Alabama heat in the novel was made all the more tangible for me. Having read this book at a relatively young age, it was a real eye-opener. It was the beginning of reading not just for fun and pleasure, but to become immersed in settings, cultures, and mindsets different from my own.

Recently, I've read a couple of books that reminded me in various ways of To Kill a Mockingbird. First, Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief. The main character Liesel's foster father Hans is a German Atticus Finch. Set during World War II, the novel explores the racial persecution of the Jews in a unique manner--through German characters who are opposed to Hitler. Hans is a sturdy rock for his family to trust in, as their world is turned upside-down by war, fear, and injustice. He is an incredible model of patience and tolerance; the word 'noble' best describes his character. Atticus and Hans will always be memorable characters in my mind because of the tenderness they show their children, which is an often rare virtue bestowed on men in literature.

Two other books are being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird for the way they narrate stories about racial segregation in the South during the 1960s. One is the phenomenal book by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, and the other is Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra (of which I previously blogged a review).

What are your emotions and memories associated with reading To Kill a Mockingbird? I'd love to read your comments here. What other books do you consider to be as powerful? Are there any current books you think will be in the spotlight 50 years from now?