How to Be an Elephant

Growing Up in the African Wild

Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy

The savanna is not an easy place to live, even for African elephants, the largest land animals on earth. If it’s a challenge for these 7,000-pound giants, what’s it like for their newborn babies?

An infant elephant has precious little time to learn the incredible array of skills that are necessary to keep up, from projecting her voice across a 10-octave range to using the 100,000 muscles in her trunk to stay hydrated. But this giant-to-be has the perfect classroom—a family herd made up of her mother, sisters, cousins, and aunts. With their help and protection, she’ll learn how to survive, how to thrive, and how to be an elephant.

Roaring Brook / David Macaulay Studio, September 19, 2017. Age Level: 7 and up.

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Advance Praise for HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT

  • A baby African elephant is born and immediately begins developing the important skills necessary to survive in the wild. In detailed accounts that integrate descriptions of elephant anatomy, behavior, and development, Roy carefully explains how the baby learns to walk, communicate, listen, and use her trunk. Diagrams and sketches illustrate interior and exterior organs, including the remarkably versatile trunk (a multipurpose tool — likened to a Swiss Army Knife — that “helps a baby elephant eat, breathe, smell, scratch, sound, gesture, dig, and drink”). All this learning takes place in the family herd, where female elephants collaborate to raise their young and pass down generations of knowledge. Roy’s dynamic illustrations of the elephants are masterful: bold strokes that provide definition to the wrinkled skin of the elephants also skillfully convey movement, and the perspective is mostly from the level of the young calf, low to the ground and close to the towering legs of protective adults. The back matter includes an author’s note detailing Roy’s visit to Kenya to learn about elephants and threats to their existence (with appended map) as well as selected sources, both print and film. ✭
    —The Horn Book (starred review)
  • Roy’s skill in bringing meaningful nonfiction to a young audience was recognized with her Sibert Honor Book Neighborhood Sharks (2014). Her outstanding new offering allows readers to walk alongside the newest addition to an African elephant herd and learn just what it takes to be an elephant. Stylized watercolors and scientific diagrams mingle on the page as Roy reveals a baby female elephant’s journey to adulthood through a mixture of simple narrative and more detailed, scholarly text. Told through a series of “lessons,” the book starts with the simple act of walking and zooms in on the elephant’s leg bones and fatty, shock-absorbing heel pad. Now able to move with the herd, the baby takes in the many smells around her, and Roy unlocks the secrets of her trunk, which is not only a super sniffer but also a strong and versatile appendage that gets likened to a Swiss Army knife. As the book progresses, Roy holds readers’ attention with her approachable writing style and astonishing statistics. Diet, communication, herd dynamics, cooling techniques, and charge attacks (first learned by playfully chasing birds) are all touched upon. Roy also explains elephants’ importance as a keystone species, and in a heartfelt author’s note, she speaks to humanity’s impact on and responsibility toward this magnificent animal. An exceptional and arresting resource for the primary grades. ✭
    —Booklist (starred review)
  • In a richly informative follow-up to Neighborhood Sharks, Roy uses a baby African elephant’s efforts to adapt to the world as a springboard to discuss the characteristics that make these creatures so distinctive. Roy’s forceful watercolors convey a sense of movement and energy, with sweeping lines in violet, gray, brown, and pale blue. Interspersed diagrams help readers get a better sense of elephants’ anatomy (including whimsical touches such as comparing a trunk to a Swiss army knife outfitted with a snorkel, trumpet, shovel, and more), while the central narrative dives into how the animals communicate, stay cool, and more. Immersive illustrations and careful attention to detail in both the text and art combine to create a rewarding study of a remarkable animal. ✭
    —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • Roy follows her masterly Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands with a stunning look at how a newborn elephant matures into a capable member of the herd. The work adroitly covers anatomy, environment, family life, and other topics. Roy emphasizes how elephants, with their “it takes a village” approach to rearing young, rely on their intricate social structure for survival. Large illustrations of a calf romping, splashing, and marching with the herd are interspersed with captivating diagrams and smaller images that expand on the lucid text, making clever use of visual metaphors (for example, a picture of a pocketknife demonstrates the many ways an elephant uses its trunk). The young elephant cuts a cuddly figure, but Roy never anthropomorphizes. Her deftly shaded, earth-tone illustrations effectively bring to life everything from the dusty African savanna to the wrinkled skin of the elephants. In-depth back matter lists age-appropriate websites, films, and books. The scientific articles Roy cites and her author’s note about her trip to Kenya are a testament to her meticulous research. VERDICT Though materials on pachyderms are plentiful, this stellar addition stands out from the crowd; a must-have for collections serving elementary school students. ✭
    —School Library Journal (starred review)
  • ...a stunning blend of natural science and art.
    —Kirkus Reviews

Blog Posts About the Elephant Book!

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A hand and an arm and a nose and a shower—an elephant’s trunk is like a Swiss Army knife of tools! With over 100,000 muscles crisscrossing its length, this appendage is a masterpiece of strength and dexterity. In this video, shot at the Sheldrick Ithumba Camp in Tsavo National Park, I
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Scientific Research for HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT

Click here for a complete list of sources for HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT.