ELEPHANT DANCE: Memories of India by Theresa Heine. Barefoot Books, 2004. Hardcover, 40 pages. Ages 4-8. $16.99.
Theresa Heine has worked as a teacher in different countries around the world. Having written poetry for various age groups, she lets her poetic strain flow through Elephant Dance, recapitulating the sights, sounds, and smells of India.
The story moves through a series of questions Anjali and Ravi pose to their visiting grandfather. They give their grandfather a red woolen scarf and fleecy slippers since he is visiting them when it is cold. When they ask if it is hot in India, their grandfather answers with the first of the similes and metaphors that abound in the book. He is a natural embellisher and his answers always draw on Indian images.
Anjali and Ravi are the eternal children, eager to learn about the world, in this instance their cultural heritage. Their curiosity draws them closer to their grandfather. When they sit down to a meal of rice and dal, Ravi asks him if he is very old. Which child hasn’t wondered at the antiquity of a grandparent or an elderly relative?
Ravi is inspired by his grandfather’s account of India, which results in a beautiful dream about the elephant dance. At the end, he asks a question typical for a child brought up in America, “Do you love me?” Grandfather answers as only an Indian can. “Ravi beta, you are warm as a newborn kid, as soft as the frangipani blossom, as sweet as the juice of the mango. And I love you very much.”
Elephant Dance is a good choice for bedtime since the poetic prose and the theme of gentle remembrance will aid sleep. The bold colorful pictures hold up in dim lighting. When the book is read aloud, the exchange between the older and younger generation has a relaxing effect on the reader. One drawback is that those who love a strong storyline will not find a plot-driven tale.
Sheila Moxley, the artist, has illustrated a number of books. Her illustrations in Elephant Dance, done in acrylic, have an Indian touch. The few American settings in the book are skimpy on details or simply not as striking as the Indian scenes, but this has the effect of easily transporting the readers to India and the imaginary situations. The characters’ facial expressions are a bit wooden, but in the penultimate picture, in which the grandfather tucks in Ravi, we see a glow of contentment on both their faces.
Heine has succeeded in being informative and interesting at the same time. She has given the readers additional cultural information in a supplement that can be used well in a classroom. There are four sections, dealing with geography, religion and culture, the animals of India, and food and spices, plus, surprisingly, a short musical score titled “Ravi’s Elephant Dance!”
Young readers will feel the flavor of India imparted in Elephant Dance and when they fall asleep perhaps they will have dreams to rival Ravi’s. Given the book’s nature it will hold up to repetitive readings and impress upon young minds facts that might otherwise slip away.