What’s a performing elephant to do when his celebrity begins to wane and he is no longer sought after by his adoring audiences? Poor Henry the elephant is accustomed to acclaim and applause, and a quiet life holds no attraction for him. Retirement does not suit him one bit. He still loves to sing but no one wants to listen and Henry continues to crave an audience. One day, he follows some musical strains in the air which lead to him to a sukkah in which a family is sitting and enjoying the holiday, singing song after song. Henry is elated. The first time he listens quietly but, when he returns a second time, he joins in. Young Ori hears him singing and invites him inside to share the holiday with the family but, alas, Henry is simply too big to fit inside the small sukkah. Ori has a clever idea. He suggests that Henry use his enormous body as one wall of the sukkah itself, enabling him to join in the laughter and song. Henry is gratified to have such an important job and sings joyously along with the family at the holiday meal. As the story closes, Henry is already planning his own sukkah for the next year and invites Ori and his family to be his guests.
The story is based on an actual Talmudic discussion, although this is not indicated in the book. The sages actually debated whether using a living being, such as an elephant, would be acceptable for use as a sukkah wall. If this fascinating historical fact is noted, it will surely tickle the fancy of adult and child alike.
This whimsical tale contains a treasure-trove of substance between its deceptively simple lines. The ability to rise above disappointment, the time-honored mitzvah of welcoming guests, the glory of communal singing and family celebration, a creative approach to problem-solving, and the holiday of Sukkot itself, each play a role in the joyous tale. An explanation of the holiday is appended for parents and children who may not be familiar with its details. The muted but appealing color illustrations perfectly convey the humor and warmth in the story. Henry the elephant will live on in the imaginations of young readers and listeners.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.