Books featuring a sibling with a mental illness

Book Review: The Elephant

Author: Peter Carnavas
Narrator: Cece Peters
Publisher: Bolinda Audio/UQP (2017)
Genre: Fiction, for a children’s readership

 Drawing of a little girl with short hair sitting against a tree. There is a dog resting against her knees.
Image source
ID: Drawing of a little girl with short hair sitting against a tree. There is a dog resting against her knees.

Olive’s father has a sadness so big that she imagines it as an enormous elephant following him around. Every day Olive sees the elephant. And every day she wishes it would go. With the help of her cheery grandad and best friend, Arthur, Olive sets out to chase the elephant away. But how can Olive move something so big?

I haven’t read any illustrated COPMI books, aside from Michelle Vasillui’s My Happy Sad Mummy, which is for a slightly younger audience. When this book became available through my library, I borrowed it immediately. The book explored the child of a parent with a mental illness (COPMI) in a nuanced way, enough that young readers might begin to understand mental illness without making the story too heavy.

The premise itself was clever, as young children are much more easily able to conceptualise mental illness as something they can recognise, such as an elephant. Positioning Olive’s father’s depression as something recognizable also meant that it was something Olive might be able to shift. It gave her – and young readers in a similar position – a sense of agency and hope. Carnavas’ choice of the elephant also allowed Olive to distinguish between her dad and his illness. She didn’t blame him for it, because it was “like an imaginary enemy [rather than imaginary friend]” something out of his control, “making everything hard and heavy” for him.

In a book as short as this, every word counts, and Carnavas used language that was economic and effective. For instance, as the story opened, Olive’s father “looked at her with raincloud eyes,” a simple description carrying a great deal of meaning. The brief chapters were also suitable for younger readers and the events of the story were well-paced to keep audiences engaged. There were sound effects in the audiobook, such as a pencil moving across paper as someone wrote, which were sure to delight young readers.      

Carnavas used the supporting characters (Olive’s granddad and her friend Arthur) to illustrate that it was okay – essential, even – for young people in Olive’s situation to reach out for and accept support from other people. Olive confided in Arthur about her dad’s elephant, thereby demonstrating to other young readers that there was strength to be found in sharing their experience. In a world where mental illness is still often stigmatized and shame keeps people silent, Olive’s choice was brave. However, through his well-intentioned idea that Olive should make the elephant go away, Arthur implied that responsibility for making her dad feel better lay with Olive. Olive’s grandad was the reliable adult she needed while her dad couldn’t pack her lunch or pick her up from school as a parent otherwise would. Olive and her grandad making planes together reminded me of the Australian film Paper Planes, which has a similar plot.  

The Elephant was a beautiful story that I hope all children and parents will read. It explored the delicate topic of parental mental illness with gentleness and grace. I wish I’d had a book like it when I was younger!

You can buy a copy of The Elephant from Readings independent booksellers.

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