By Michael Morpurgo
cover image retrieved from
on September 16, 2012
Morpurgo, Michael. An Elephant in the Garden. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2011.
The reminiscences of an elderly woman frame this charming tale of a very unexpected result of World War II, the bonding of a zoo elephant with the German family who attempts to safe her.
Young Karl accompanies his mother to her job in an elder care facility, where he strikes up a friendship with a reclusive resident. Elizabeth sees a striking resemblance between Karl and her younger brother during his childhood. Their common name warms her heart, and leads Elizabeth to recall her teenage days as Lizzie, who endured the terrors of the War, including her father being sent off to battle. Lizzie’s mother, a zookeeper, assumes responsibility for Marlene, an elephant from the zoo who will be put down if the city is attacked. The adventure of moving Marlene to safety when Dresden does come under attack, and the accompanying difficulties while seeking safety, is relayed in a touching recollection.
As this story opens in a present-day nursing home, where the young son of one of the nurses plays while waiting for his mother to get off work, it is a tale that could be played out in almost any nursing home around the world. Elderly Elizabeth spends her days reclusively, piping up from time to time about events she remembers from her younger days. Dismissed as someone loosing her memory, Elizabeth assures young Karl and his mother that though she “cannot remember much about yesterday, nor even what I had for breakfast this morning … I promise you I can remember just how it was when I was young.” This statement summarizes the mental state of many elderly worldwide, which is a great unifying factor to connect to the reader. As Elizabeth begins to relay her memories of how an elephant came to be in her garden, the text turns to a tale with international flavor.
Elizabeth (Lizzie in her youth) slips into her tale of her younger brother, whom she calls Karli, her mother, and the father they dearly love, who is a soldier in the German army, away fighting the Russians. Lizzie refers to the German names of her parents, whom she called Papi and Mutti, and sprinkles many other German terms into her tale. Small details, such as the food they ate or their terms for common items, add to the cultural markers. Names of the characters reflect German spellings, often ending in i for the final long e sound. A love for German actresses (Malene Dietrich), music (Bach), and paintings (the work of Rembrandt) are included as explanations into character’s softer sides.
This book is uncommon in that in tells the everyday story of a German family during World War II. Mistreatment of the Jews by Nazis is described briefly, to drive home that point that Lizzie dislikes injustice in any form. The family’s adoption of Marlene, the elephant who spends nights in the family garden as a precaution in case the city is attacked during the night, is an extension of their distaste for the injustice of war. A common practice during WWII was for zoos to euthanize potentially dangerous animals if the city was attacked, to prevent the large or carnivorous animals from escaping in terror and doing harm to innocent civilians. Mutti could not bear the thought of her beloved elephant, whom she had cared for since birth, being shot. Thus, she began the practice of bringing her home each evening to watch over her.
Several German terms are used throughout the book, lending authenticity to the story. When the family stumbles upon a downed Canadian Royal Air Force pilot during their escape from Dresden, cultural misconceptions about the foreigner are obvious. The family and the pilot form a tenuous bond, seeking to help one another survive the trek to safety. Peter, the pilot, is described as having an accent, which he certainly would have had to a German. Peter and the family learn more about one anther’s cultures as they explain little details about themselves.
As Elizabeth retells her story, the book switches fonts as she goes from present day to the past. This is a fine device to aid the reader in switching time periods. The story starts of rather slowly, but draws the reader in to a charming tale. Teeming with historical details, this personal story is an excellent study in the horrors of war and the determination of the strong to survive in spite of hardship. I recommend it for upper elementary or middle school readers, or any lovers of historical fiction.
Thom Barthelmess (Booklist, Oct. 1, 2011 (Vol. 108, No. 3))
Alternating narratives tell the story of a family’s remarkable survival of the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. The occasional interruptions to the story build suspense and add a layer of resonance to Morpurgo’s poignant and thoughtful exploration of the terrible impact of war on both sides of the fighting.
Deborah Cooper (VOYA, October 2011 (Vol. 34, No. 4))
An Elephant is the Garden tells the story of Lizzie, a fifteen-year-old girl in Dresden, Germany, during the second World War. The author adeptly balances Lizzie's experiences and emotions with the factual background. Librarians and educators alike will welcome this semi-factual historical title as a valuable teaching aide on the subject of war.
Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2011 (Vol. 79, No. 16))
Lizzie, a frail, aged nursing-home resident, relates to her nurse and the nurse's son her poignant World War II tale set in Dresden, Germany. A moving but somewhat flawed tale of human—and animal—courage in the face of tragic suffering.
· Journal writing: Students will create a journal entry for another adventure involving Marlene that the family might have had during their exodus from Dresden.
· Reader’s Response: Students will assume the role of Marlene, to retell one of the events detailed in the novel from her point of view.
· View video of the author discussing this book and reading excerpts at http://michaelmorpurgo.com/books/an-elephant-in-the-garden
· A book quiz and two puzzles related to the book are available on the author’s website, http://michaelmorpurgo.com/activities/C3
· This story is uncommon for literature set in the World War II time period, in that it tells the story of a family of German commoners and the effect of the War on their lives. Students will read another story set during WWII, which tells the story of a family affected by WWII from the viewpoint of someone on the side of the Allies or a Jewish family (see list of suggested books following.) Students will compare and contrast the stories told from opposing viewpoints.
Possible novel choices:
Lilly’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn
The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle
Students will create a tri-fold graphic organizer, detailing effects of the War from each novel on the outside panes, and common effects in the center frame.
· Students will create a collage of pictures/objects from this story that play an important role in the telling of this story, i.e. an elephant, a farmhouse, a compass, an elderly woman, a circus, a WWII era plane, a soldier’s uniform, etc.
· Students will create an elephant mosaic. The elephant can be constructed from materials associated with the story, such as fake snow, hay from the stable, flowers from a garden, musical notes associated with the children’s choir, etc.; or from any material the student associates with the characteristics of the elephant or of war.
· Students will paint a landscape of the countryside Marlene and the family traversed as they sought safety and the American soldiers.
· Students will learn more about the aerial raids in the European theater of World War II by viewing clips from the History Channel, such as the London Blitz at http://www.history.com/videos/patton-and-the-liberation-of-europe#history-features-london-blitz , the Bombing of Hamburg at http://www.history.com/videos/patton-and-the-liberation-of-europe#bombing-hamburg , or aerial dogfights footage at
· Students will gain a greater understanding of the effects of World War II on a US soldier by reading the Jones Family Letters, which trace the experiences of Joe Jones, a U.S. soldier in the WW II European war theater. Letters can be accessed through links at
· Students will construct a timeline of major events of WWII. The timeline will be an annotated, illustrated product with at least 10 events.
Other Books by Michael Morpurgo
▪ It Never Rained: Five Stories
▪ Living Poets (compiler with Clifford Simmons)
▪ The Story-Teller (compiler with Graham Barrett)
▪ All Around the Year (with Ted Hughes)
▪ Words of Songs (libretto, music by Phyllis Tate)
▪ Mossop's Last Chance (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Albertine, Goose Queen (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Jigger's Day Off (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ And Pigs Might Fly! (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Martians at Mudpuddle Farm (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Mum's the Word (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Stories from Mudpuddle Farm (with Shoo Rayner)
▪ Farm Boy
▪ Mr. Skip
▪ Beowulf , illustrated by Michael Foreman
▪ The Birthday Book (editor, with Quentin Blake)
▪ Mudpuddle Farm: Six Animal Adventures (with Shoo Rayner)