Poetry Box review: Melinda Szymanik and Vasanti Unka’s My Elephant is Blue: a book about big, heavy feelings

Poetry Box June challenge: favourite words poems

My Elephant is Blue: a book about big, heavy feelings

by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Vasanti Unka, Penguin (Puffin imprint) 2021

Melinda Szymanik and Vasanti Unka have produced an exquisite combination of words and images, story and illustration, for My Elephant is Blue: a book about big, heavy feelings. First up you have to run your fingers over the big blue elephant on the cover and feel the folds of skin. Penguin have done a terrific design job and I love the generous size. You need a big picture book to hold big feelings and a big blue elephant.

The first sentence will surprise you and most certainly encourage you to keep reading: ‘One morning I woke to find an elephant sitting on my chest.’

As you can imagine getting up was a problem, letting alone moving around, brushing teeth, when the big blue elephant just wouldn’t move!

Melinda has created the most inventive heartwarming story about what to do when a big blue feeling won’t budge. In an interview with Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, she explained what prompted her to write the story:

I was having some big heavy feelings of my own. I’ve often found writing can help me process my own thoughts and feelings, and the story that results can provide some sort of solution or way forward and that was definitely the case here. And the best thing is it doesn’t just help me, it can also help the young audience for whom I write.

The child’s parents chip in with suggestions, research elephants by reading books and phoning specialists, by helping the child do things and do more things, go walking round the block, pack a picnic. Even with the big blue elephant in tow.

The premise of the story is significant – we all have heavy feelings to manage, both as children and as adults. The elephant metaphor is genius. The sentences are so sweetly and economically crafted, they serve the big heavy feeling beautifully. The persistence of child and parents to solve the weight of the big blue elephant is crucial. The ending is significant, genius, beautiful.

Vasanti’s illustrations are tone perfect. Both the child and the big blue elephant will enhance the mood that grows inside as you read. And I adore the delicate soft-palette of the background, where the scene borders on transparent. Her colours keep step with the story, from the pale windows with the pale outside to the explosion of picnic colour to the final scenes: significant, genius, beautiful.

My Elephant is Blue is a very special book. It dares to go into a tough zone, to make human experience achingly real, and to offer the little steps that lead to hope and lightness. I love this book so much.

One day an elephant came and sat on my chest.
I found it hard to get up or move around, to breathe or talk.

“I’m Blue,” the elephant said.
“Can you please move, Blue?” I asked.
“I don’t want to move. This is a good spot for me to sit.”
“You’re crushing me,” I said.
“Yet I find you very comfortable,” said Blue.

Melinda writes picture books, short stories and novels for children and young adults. She has been a finalist for a number of awards, and five of her titles are Storylines Notable Books. Her picture book, The Were-Nana, won the New Zealand Post Children’s Choice Award in 2009, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Sakura Medal. Her novel, A Winter’s Day in 1939, won Librarian’s Choice at the 2014 LIANZA Awards and her picture book Fuzzy Doodle, was a 2017 White Raven Selection. She lives in Auckland with her family, and loves watching movies, eating out with her favourite people, and travelling abroad when the stars are aligned. She strongly believes that you can never have too many books, and you can never be too kind.

Vasanti Unka is an award-winning writer, designer and illustrator noted for the originality of her storytelling, her riotously colourful and inventive illustrations and the gorgeous design and production of her picture books. Vasanti is the illustrator of award-winning Hill & Hole by Kyle Mewburn. The Boring Book (Puffin 2013), which Vasanti wrote, illustrated and designed, was named the 2014 New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and also took out the Best Picture Book Award category. Stripes! No, Spots!, published by Puffin in 2015 and described by poet Paula Green as ‘scrumptious in every way’, was lauded as a 2016 Storylines Notable Picture Book and was simultaneously published in the UK and US. Vasanti lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where she juggles creative work and numerous book projects.

Penguin page

Interview with Read NZ Te Pou Muramura

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