Review – One Step at a Time by Jane Jolly and Sally Heinrich

9780987380951Inspired by a true story, One Step at a Time exposes the unfortunate reality of the global landmine crisis through the prism of a friendship between a young boy and an elephant. Writer Jane Jolly and artist Sally Heinrich handle this subject with such deftness and clarity to ensure young readers grasp the predicament facing an estimated 70 countries around the world.

According to a 2003 edition of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, over 110 million mines had been spread throughout the world in an estimated 70 countries in the preceding 65 years. These indiscriminate weapons cost around $1 to produce, but around $1,000 to find and destroy, and the vast majority of incidents occur in regions with limited resources and substandard medical infrastructures. These are man-made devices afflicting dastardly mortality rates. The landmine crisis is real, and needs to be talked about.

Of course, the information above is as an ethereal backdrop to the story rather than its focus. One Step at a Time is actually a very uplifting tale. It begins with Mali, a young elephant exploring the border of Thailand and Burma, merrily going about her day, until one misplaced footstep sets off a landmine. Sally Heinrich portrays the devastation of the blast with a powerful two-page spread of black smoke and an enormous BOOM! printed in fiery red. When the smoke clears, poor Mali is clearly injured; unable to stand, utterly helpless. All because she trod on a bad patch of grass.

Thankfully a young boy, Luk, finds Mali, and supports her during her long recovery. They’re kindred spirits: both are victims of landmines, and both are fitted with prosthetic legs. Luk explains to Mali the arduous physiotherapy involved when adjusting to walking with prosthesis, but ensures she’ll be able to do so, and very soon she’ll be able to carry on as before, gaily exploring the jungle. Only from now on, she’ll have a companion: young Luk.

Ultimately a story about friendship and about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, One Step at Time handles the subject of landmines with a soft touch. Working in wonderful harmony, Jolly and Heinrich have created an endearing tale for young readers that is both poignant and enlightening.  Children wanting to learn more will gain valuable insight from the page of facts at the book’s end, while there is plenty of information on the web about the inspiration for Mali, Mosha the elephant, who thrives with her prosthetic leg.

Simon McDonald

Buy the book here…

The Elephant Whisperer

The Elephant WhispererI was pretty unhappy about starting Lawrence Anthony’s The Elephant Whisperer (cowritten, as with his other two books, by Graham Spence), not because I didn’t think it was going to be good, but because I knew it was. I knew too that it would mean I quickly smashed my way through reading it and would then be all out of Anthony books.

The Elephant Whisperer is Anthony’s third non-fiction work about his animal rescue exploits, although I don’t think it was written third and I certainly don’t think it’ll be his last. He’s a South African Steve Irwin, but with a little more (forgive me for saying this—because I’m not dissing Irwin, honest) intellect and storytelling smarts.

This book outlines Anthony’s life-changing decision to take on a wild, aggressive, troublesome herd of elephants known for jailbreaking any and all enclosures trying to contain them. With no amount of electrified fence voltage stopping the giant creatures, the authorities are anxious to shoot them dead. Anthony can’t stomach that ‘resolution’ and, despite having no experience with elephants, agrees to re-home them on his reserve, Thula Thula.

Of course, the elephants immediately bust out of Anthony’s holding pen too, making a beeline for their home with villages and humans in their paths. What follows is an intensely anxious search to find and recapture them before awfulness, which Anthony himself dubs ‘conservation’s Chernobyl’, unfolds.

The book’s title gives the impression that Anthony is something of an elephant expert, but he himself states on page one that this isn’t the case. He instead writes of how unexpected and profoundly accepting the elephants changed his life—for the better:

In 1999, I was asked to accept a herd of troubled wild elephants on my game reserve. I had no inkling of the escapades and adventures I was about to embark upon. I had no idea how challenging it would be or how much my life would be enriched […] Make no mistake, the title of this book is not about me for I make no claim to any special abilities. It is about the elephants—it is they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen.

Babylon's ArkThat listening gives insight into elephants few have ever experienced, which Anthony conveys with his characteristic storytelling wit and panache.

Some of his stories are uncanny, such as how news of the removal of guards who’d actually be secretly poaching animals seemed to spread through the animal world and previously unseen animals emerged. Or how the elephants knew when Anthony was away and went into deep bush, emerging only to greet him on his return.

Some of them are how-about-that clever and fun. One of my favourite is about when Anthony dropped his new Nokia on the ground in his haste to get out of the elephants’ way. It started to ring. After investigating it thoroughly with her trunk and both unsure of what it was and why it wouldn’t stop squeaking, the herd’s enforcer, Frankie, definitively stomped on (and silenced) the phone. Incredibly, Anthony found that the phone still worked (once the elephants lost interest and shuffled off and he ventured out to prise it from the ground):

I later phoned Nokia and told them about the incident, congratulating them on the ruggedness of the phone. After a long silence the manager thanked me and hung up. I reckon even they didn’t believe their products could withstand being stomped on by a wild elephant.

Then there’s the one-liner about how one ranger leaves because he’s fallen in love with a guest. ‘I know guests sometimes steal a towel or soap,’ Francoise, Anthony’s partner says, ‘but this one stole our ranger.’

The Last RhinosAs with Anthony’s other two books, there were moments that almost broke me. One included when they discovered why an orphaned elephant wasn’t trumpeting as she should have been:

And for the first time she was trumpeting for all her worth. But instead of a clear, clean call she was honking like a strangled goose. David and I looked at each other. Now we knew why she had been silent. The poor creature had destroyed her vocal cords, screaming herself hoarse for help, calling for her mother and aunts, lost and pitifully alone in the wilderness while lions circled.

The Last Rhinos touches on some of the same themes as The Elephant Whisperer, with some sections of the book recognisable in each, but even when there’s overlap, the stories take on new relevance and significance in the latter. Truthfully, though, I’d read and re-read anything Anthony wrote. His passion, his humour, his compassion, and his wise, pragmatic outlook on life make his books un-put-down-able. Let me know when his fourth book is out, ok?