Last post I named Arnold Lobel a Top Ten Creator of Children’s Literature and shared our experience with Uncle Elephant. In addition to that treasured time with my son, however, Uncle Elephant offered so much more. For days following our first reading, I could hear his voice echo in my mind: “Come out of this dark place,” he said.
Come out of this dark place.
How often do we find ourselves in need of those words? In need of someone who will speak them to us?
Like Little Elephant, our dark place may be grief. It may be loneliness. It may be depression, anxiety, fear, shame, or distrust. Perhaps it’s anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, insecurity, self-loathing. Or even guilt, sorrow, pain, regret, despair, disappointment, or deep discouragement.
Honestly, the list goes on. Don’t we know it! In the pitch-black of these places, we feel up and down the walls; blindly we search for a door handle, a window latch, anywhere to exit. Now, just imagine what it must be like for a child to experience these emotions. The invitation to “come out of this dark place” resonates. And it leads me to look at how Lobel portrays light throughout the story.
Uncle Elephant Lights a Lamp
After Uncle Elephant opens the door to Little Elephant’s room (where he sits alone and with the curtains closed), Uncle Elephant invites Little Elephant to come and visit him. When they arrive at his house, Uncle Elephant lights a lamp. They hear a small voice from inside the lamp, assume it’s magical, and proceed to discuss all the wishes they will make. In the end, however, the voice belongs to a spider who lives inside the lamp and who wants them to turn it off because it’s getting too hot.
Uncle Elephant’s ‘unsuccessful’ attempt to light the lamp is quite profound. Here’s how I view this scene after looking at the theme of light:
- In all the quirky and silly wishes expressed, there is an underlying awareness of the real wish–for the parents to return. As it’s beyond Uncle Elephant’s power to grant this wish, he at least addresses the wish of the spider and happily turns off the lamp.
- There is an acknowledgment of the slow process, or stages, of coming out of a dark place. Little Elephant is no longer alone in the dark, but neither is he ready to bask in bright light. He and Uncle Elephant are somewhere in between, in the light of the moon.
- It recognizes a shared grief. Uncle Elephant, too, lost a loved one. He is no less affected by the loss. Perhaps–just perhaps– his nephew’s need is the one thing keeping him from entering a dark place of his own.
Uncle Elephant Trumpets the Dawn
The next morning Little Elephant wakes to a strange sound. Voomarooom! Uncle Elephant stands in the garden, trumpeting. When questioned by Little Elephant, Uncle informs him: “I always welcome the dawn this way. Every new day deserves a good, loud trumpet.” Then Little Elephant is introduced to all the flowers in the garden, which is Uncle Elephant’s favourite place in the whole world, it’s his own kingdom. Little Elephant is declared a prince.
Again, I find depth and wisdom in Uncle Elephant’s actions.
- “I always welcome the dawn this way,” said Uncle Elephant. To me, welcoming the dawn shows a recognition that life is a gift, each day an opportunity. And what better way to welcome a new day than by declaring, with bold action, a full acceptance of who you are! (I am Elephant, hear me trumpet.)
- “Every new day deserves a good, loud trumpet.” This is a bold statement considering Elephant’s parents are missing. In the midst of loss, often what can add to one’s agony is the idea that ‘life goes on’. But there’s something to be said about deciding to face a new day with courage and strength, regardless of the circumstances.
- We were the king and the prince. We were trumpeting the dawn. Not only is there a sense of shared grief between Uncle Elephant and his nephew, but here there’s a sense of shared strength and courage. They will face the new day–whatever it may bring–together.
With this evaluation on the theme of light in Arnold Lobel’s Uncle Elephant, I have merely mined the surface. There are many more gems in this book that touch on the themes of community, belonging, inter-generational relationships, and more.
If you read this lovely story, let me know what you discover!