TUA AND THE ELEPHANT by K.P. Harris
Tua knows every inch of her Chiang Mai neighborhood, but she’s never seen an elephant like Pohn-Pohn there before. Determined to rescue her new friend from his abusive handlers, Tua orchestrates a nighttime elephant liberation, and—with the elephant’s evil owners hot on her trail—makes her way first to her aunt’s house, then to a temple, and finally to an elephant sanctuary where Pohn-Pohn can live happily ever after.
This is a fun adventure story, but what makes it so fun to read aloud is the way that it brings the culture and landscape of Thailand to life so vividly. Tua lives with her hard-working mom, but everyone in the village feels like part of her family: Uncle Somchai, who makes the best banana roti pancakes; Auntie Nam, who always has a curry treat for Tua; Uncle Sim, who tries to teach her how to haggle to get the best deals at the market; and famous Auntie Orchid, one of Thailand’s best known actresses. Everyone loves the “little peanut”—that’s what Tua’s name means—and wants to help her in general and in her quest. It’s great to read a children’s book with a Thai main character who isn’t a refugee, and there’s a strong environmental and ethical message running through the story.
There’s not a lot of subtlety in the good guy/bad guy dynamic for this book—the elephant hunters are unabashed bad guys—but that doesn’t bother me in a kids’ adventure tale. The book is sprinkled with Thai vocabulary and customs—some readers seem to have been irritated by the fact that not all of these cultural notes are explained and defined, but I actually like the way it makes you feel like you’ve dived into a entirely different world. (I’m always looking for ways to decenter Western perspectives, but if you aren’t, you could easily look up foreign words before reading the book with your kids.) I think it’s a lovely little book—I'd definitely pass it on to kids who loved Mr. Popper's Penguins or Owls in the Family—and Tua and Pohn-Pohn are delightful protagonists.