Marcia Williams has delivered a sumptuous feast with a pictorial spread of retold fables, The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India. The sources of the eight stories are the Hitopadesha Tales, the Jataka Tales, and the Panchatantra Tales. The tales may seem familiar, but packaged in comic strip format they possess vitality and can be savored again and again. Among Williams’s other cartoon books are Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs and Greek Myths for Young Children. In The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India, the author’s humorous take on the stories, especially in the speech bubbles, the striking colors and lovingly portrayed animals give instant appeal.
My favorite, “The Elephant’s Friend,” is sure to enchant. The elephant in Williams’s story enjoys a privileged existence as the king’s pet. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a scrawny dog who lives off his food. When the animals get acquainted, they bow to each other in absurd fashion—both creatures bend down, raising their rear ends. “Pleasure to meet you, Dog,” the elephant says while in the ridiculous position. The canine, rear held aloft, says, “Likewise!” The scrawny dog’s appearance improves, thanks to his new environment and meaningful friendship, so much so that he attracts the attention of a rich merchant who buys him. The lesson of the fable delivered by the king, as the elephant and the dog hold their bottoms aloft again, adds to the hilarity: “Never come between an elephant and his dog.” The story has its poignant moments as when the elephant, missing his friend, lies prone and a tear slides out of his eye. The writer says of the character and the other animals, “their passions, disappointments, triumphs, and foibles could have been my own … or maybe yours!”
“The Tale of the Three Large Fish,” concerns the destiny of three fish—one wise, one clever, and one ruled by a belief in fate. One day, they overhear two fisherman talking, one of whom tells the other that they should return the next day and cast their nets in the lake. The wise fish fails to convince his friends to leave the lake with him. The clever fish has too much confidence in himself and the fish who believes in fate has a que sera sera mentality, mumbling, “What will be … will be.” I wish Williams had ended this charming story with an illustration of the wise fish swimming in the company of new companions (we don’t see him after he leaves).
“The Wise Little Pebet” like “The Tale of the Three Large Fish” is another story celebrating intelligence paired with the right attitude. A mother bird’s wit saves the lives of her seven chicks. The villain here is a cat who pretends to be a vegetarian and is susceptible to flattery.
Williams comes across as a stronger illustrator than a storyteller. Her pictures invite leisurely scrutiny. The book occasionally relies on cliches. “In the middle of a forest, there lived an extremely greedy lion named King Bhasuraka. King Bhasuraka ate at least six forest creatures a day! He grew fatter and fatter, but the forest creatures grew fewer and fewer …” However, Williams’s old-fashioned narrative and charming contemporary dialogue marry well.
Though the publisher targets children from the age group of eight to twelve, I think The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from India suits a younger group ranging from four (read with an adult) to eight. The attractive comic strips and the time tested traditional stories make the book an excellent companion to relax with.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.