While out for a walk with a dog, a goat, a piglet and some ducklings—a typical occurrence for the daughter of two veterinarians—11-year-old Oriol meets a poet named Gabriela Mistral. Like Oriol, Gabriela speaks both English and Spanish, and she offers to teach Oriol to express her thoughts through poetry.
Oriol has a lot on her mind, including grief over her grandmother’s death, disappointment with her family’s recent move from Cuba to California, frustrations at school, and hope that someday she, too, will become a veterinarian. When Oriol’s parents are asked to care for Chandra, a pregnant elephant at the wildlife ranch, Oriol quickly bonds with the creature and is thrilled when Chandra gives birth to twins. But a famous movie actor has a shocking plan for the baby elephants, and Oriol must combine her love for animals and her newfound abilities as a poet if she is to right the grievous wrong.
Oriol narrates Singing With Elephants in conversational verse that often incorporates Spanish words and phrases, the meaning of which is always clear from context: “Una mezcla, la poeta suggests / let us mix our languages together.” Newbery Honor and Pura Belpré Award-winning author Margarita Engle frequently employs alliterative imagery (“windy whispers,” “hug me / with hums”) and repetition. Vivid metaphors drawn from the natural world become a way to talk about the nature of poetry itself, such as when Mistral tells Oriol that “poetry is like a planet,” explaining how “each word spins / orbits / twirls / and radiates / reflected / starlight.” Language, Oriol discovers, can be used for both nefarious and benevolent ends, and “grief and joy / have a way / of taking turns / in the vast / spinning / galaxy / of verses.”
A lengthy author’s note provides information about the life and legacy of Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet who is the only Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Engle also includes the original Spanish text of one of Mistral’s lovely children’s poems, “Animales,” and an English translation by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Singing With Elephants will have young readers humming with delight and ready to champion a righteous cause.