Book Review: Oy Elephants!
Deborah Stevenson has written another fun story! This time, it’s full of whimsical imagination and is sure to be a crowd pleaser with elementary school aged children.
Oy, Elephants! starts off with Joel heading off for a trip to visit his grandparents in Florida over summer break. He likes visiting his grandparents, but as the only kid in their retirement village, it can get a bit dull.
But not this time.
With a surprising turn of events, a new neighbour is moving in, and it causes quite a stir. The newest residents at the Del Ray Retirement Village are a pair of newly retired circus elephants.
These extra large characters are full sized, talking elephants that are brought to life with humour and excitement by illustrator Morgan Spicer’s drawings.
As both illustrator and author work so well together, their unlikely tale provides children with an entertaining story of a summer break that seems entirely plausible within the realm of a child’s imagination.
Don’t be fooled, though. The quick-paced, engaging tale isn’t only for fun. It has an underlying lesson, too.
While exploring the humourous situation of two giant pachyderms retiring in Florida, and showcasing the disastrous events that ensue, there is a background lesson being taught about acceptance and tolerance, about giving new people, and people who are a bit different, a chance to shine.
That is definitely a lesson children (and some adults) need to learn, and what better way to do it than through a silly tale.
Author Interview: Deborah Stevenson
This is your second interview with Abrazo and Coze, so we already know a little about you from that first interview. Instead of telling us about yourself, instead, what is something interesting about you that many people don’t know?
Thanks so much for “having me back again” to talk about Oy, Elephants!
I’m so grateful that you have decided to share the story with your readers. So, I will share a little secret.
The illustrator, Morgan Spicer, and I both tend to be a bit sentimental, and often there are little touches in our books that have special meaning to one or both of us.
The names of characters are often meaningful, even the choices of fonts are sometimes meaningful.
Morgan’s dogs have frequently made an appearance in our books. In Oy, Elephants! if you look you will find my grandmother’s favourite flowers: Birds of Paradise. And the little brass dinner bell my grandpa used to ring to get us all to the table when dinner was ready.
And for those who have read Soaring Soren, if you look very carefully, you will find that Soren appears two times in Oy, Elephants! One place is pretty easy to spot if you are looking. The other one is pretty tricky! Good luck!!
What sparked the idea for Oy, Elephants!?
I’m glad you asked that question! It was actually sparked by current events.
A few years ago, Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they would no longer be using elephants in their circus acts and that the elephants would be retiring to Florida.
On a serious note, I was glad to see that the elephants would have a better life. On a humorous note, the fact that they retired to FLORIDA, of all places, really tickled me. It’s such a “human” retirement spot, and my own grandparents had, in fact, retired to Florida years ago.
I started imagining what would happen if retired circus elephants moved into their retirement community. How would the neighbours react? What silly events might ensue? How would my grandparents react?
I knew the answer to the last question … my grandmother would welcome them with open arms, as she did everyone, invite them to the pool (ensuring they had the proper sun protection) and of course, to dinner.
And from there the story started to take on a life of its own.
What are egg creams? Do you have a (link to a) recipe we can try?
If you have never had an egg cream, you are missing out!
They were big in Brooklyn, where my grandparents lived before retiring to Florida. When we were kids, my grandparents had seltzer delivered by a Seltzer Man. It came in glass bottles of green or blue, and it had a metal spray top.
An egg cream was basically chocolate milk (U-Bet Chocolate Syrup and milk) with seltzer sprayed in it to form a foamy head on top. If you look on the counter in the scene with the egg creams, you’ll see the ingredients.
My grandpa would make them for us in tiny A&W root beer glasses. It was quite a production and we all (siblings and cousins) thought it was the best treat ever.
There’s a lot of speculation about the name of the drink, because as it says in the story, it contains neither eggs nor cream. You can read about it on Wikipedia.
This is a great recipe, though I think you will be hard-pressed to find the spray canisters of seltzer anymore.
If you try egg creams, I’m sure you will love them, though nobody made them with quite the flair of Grandpa Morris.
Lots of kids move with their families and end up being the new kid at school, and it can be challenging to feel like you fit in. What does Oy, Elephants! teach us about being the new person or about standing out for being different?
That struggle of moving into a new community and being different is a central theme in Oy, Elephants! While it is a lighthearted and fun story, being different can sometimes be anything but fun for children, and grownups for that matter.
Initially, many of the neighbours are not kind to the elephants, or happy to have them living next door. Grandma Gussie, Grandpa Morris and Joel go out of their way to make the Helfands, the new elephants in town, feel welcome.
It turns out to be a rewarding and wonderful experience that would not have happened without that initial gesture of kindness. And in time, the rest of the community comes to see the Helfands in a new light as well.
I hope that children will be inspired to be welcoming and kind to newcomers who may be different.
Also, I hope they will realize that, although being different can be difficult at times, we each bring unique and wonderful gifts to the party of life, and our differences should be celebrated, appreciated and savoured.
What authors, events, or books have greatly influenced you and your writing?
I have always had a deep love for animals, and I think that has been a great influence in my writing. I love to share that respect and appreciation for animals with children.
My “real” Grandma Gussie is probably responsible for my passion for things four-footed. She always had dogs, and she was always rescuing neighbourhood birds and squirrels, patching them up and setting them free again.
I will forever be grateful to her for that gift, which has brought me much joy in life.
As a child, I loved reading stories about animals: The Yearling, Big Red, Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web.
I also appreciate authors who can weave humour into stories, even stories of difficulties or hardship. A Series of Unfortunate Events and James and the Giant Peach come to mind. I think that has certainly influenced my writing.
My chapter book, The Last Rhino, is a somewhat difficult story about a tough subject: a baby rhino that is orphaned due to poaching.
I struggled a bit with how to make it work for children, impressing upon them the seriousness of the situation, but in a gentle way and including humour and triumphs for the main characters.
In stories, as in life, our ability to find humour and to keep sight of what we accomplish despite obstacles, gives us the strength to persevere.
I think it is important to instill those valuable coping mechanisms in children. And let’s face it, getting lost in a great story is also a wonderful coping mechanism.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I probably do.
I tend to “dream” stories, and when I do, I MUST write them as soon as I wake up. Once I dreamed a four-book series. I woke up at 2 AM with all four books in my head. I could not go back to sleep. I had to go down to the computer and start writing.
By the time I got through the third story, I was exhausted, and it was 1 PM. I tried to take a break and a nap. I flopped around the bed for about 45 minutes, finally gave up and went downstairs to write story number four. And then I could go to sleep.
I’ve not yet published those books, but I hope to at some point—they are incredibly silly and, I think, a lot of fun.
What are you currently reading?
At the moment I am reading The Cricket in Times Square.
I spend a lot of time thinking about children’s books these days, and it has prompted me to go back and reread some of my favourites from when I was a child.
This one, which I loved as a kid, popped up recently when I was looking for something on Amazon, and I couldn’t resist taking a new peek with my grownup eyes.
What are you working on now?
I’m so excited about my current project.
It is called An Armadillo on My Pillow, and it is my first rhyming story!
Writing in good rhyme and meter is challenging, so I worked with a poetry coach, Tamara Rittershaus, to be sure I did it well. She was a wonderful teacher, and I had so much fun—it was a little like doing a word puzzle, which I love. I hope it will be terrific fun for all ages, from 2 up.
It is silly, humorous and features LOTS of animals doing some very interesting things.
Morgan Spicer, who does my illustrations, is exceptional at depicting animals, and I wrote this story to showcase her incredible talent. She just completed the cover art, title page and first spread and they are AMAZING! Even better than I anticipated.
I can’t wait to see what she does with the rest of the book! Or to share it with all of you!
We’re hoping it will be out by Fall 2019.
Tell us an inspiring story about you or share a joke with us.
Hmmm … a joke.
Well, I will share a funny story that is actually part of Oy, Elephants!
Long ago, we were at my grandparents’ house. They had a wall hanging storage unit, and below it, was a table with lovely antiques—treasures friends and children had brought back for them from all over the world.
My sisters and I opened the dropdown door on the front of the wall unit to get something out, and without warning, the whole thing ripped from the wall, landing on the display table beneath it, and destroying most of the breakable items on the table.
We were mortified.
There was dead silence as we all stared at the rubble on the carpet. And then, my grandpa sighed and said, “Ahhh … we used to have a lot of nice things.”
We all burst out laughing, especially him.
To this day in my family, when someone breaks something, backs their car into another car in the driveway, or throws a baseball through a window, we just look at each other and say, “we used to have a lot of nice things.”
Is there anything else you would like to share with us about yourself, your writing, or Oy, Elephants!?
I love to write, especially for children, and I hope that shines through in all my books.
I recently read an article about the difference between stories for children in the US and the UK. It said that in the US, stories often focused heavily on messages, where in the UK, it was more about the story and just fun.
I think I try to strike a balance.
First and foremost, I try to tell an engaging story that children and adults will enjoy. Woven into those stories are messages I hold close to my heart, but I don’t preach or hit you over the head.
The lessons are there to be discovered, and I think they are more meaningful that way.
In closing, I’ll just say a few words about my grandparents, the “real” Gussie and Morris, who are the stars of the Oy, Elephants! They were two of my favourite people in the world.
My grandmother was bossy and didn’t take any flack, but she had a heart of gold and a special way of making each person she loved feel like the most important person in the world. She had that effect on strangers too, and she would return from even a stay in the hospital with a list of new pen pals.
When I was young, I adored her and it was the greatest treat to stay over at her apartment—she took me to the city to see shows and taught me how to cook.
As a young woman, when I visited in Florida, she would (much to my horror and humiliation) make me wear a big sunhat to the pool—it wasn’t worth arguing about it. You were GOING to wear it.
My grandfather was a kind and gentle soul, very funny (not always intentionally) and just plain fun. He was always up for a game or a crazy stunt and he never tired of entertaining the grandkids, and later the great grandkids.
When my son was young and we’d visit, he and Grandpa would disappear into the den after dinner to play. We’d hear talking and giggling, and then it would get very quiet. We’d go check, and my son was busily playing, with Grandpa fast asleep on the floor next to him.
Oy, Elephants! is full of wonderful memories of my grandparents, and so it’s especially dear to me. The thought that a grandchild might snuggle up with a favourite grandparent and enjoy the book together makes my heart smile.
You can’t go wrong getting this book for the children in your life. They’ll love the story. They’ll be using their imaginations. And they’ll be learning an important lesson.
If you want to discover more ways to teach your children to be tolerant and accepting of those who are new or different than themselves, check out this post on the benefits of meditation, or this author interview and book review for Aidan The Wonder Kid, or this post outlining the benefits of learning dance for kids.