a review by Nalini Haynes
The Last Elephant is the first in the Lost World Circus series by Justin D’Ath. Twelve years from now, nearly all animals have been killed by a virus or by people to prevent the virus passing to humans like the swine flu. The only animals outside of government domestic farms are in Captain Noah’s Lost World Circus, travelling from town to town, reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Mr Galliano’s Circus.
When he was little, a ghost rat bit Colt Lawless, transmitting the deadly virus to humans, but Colt’s mother saved him with a dose of cow vaccine. When Colt visits the circus, he steps in to save a ghost rat from eradication, demonstrating superpowers for the first time. Colt meets Birdy, an eleven year old Asian girl, who performs in the circus as a member of the Flying Finns, an acrobatic troupe.
The world’s last elephant, Lucy, contracts rat flu. DoRFE, the department responsible for killing rats, has failed to keep the rat population under control so they kill animals instead. DoRFE hears about Lucy’s illness, arriving promptly, ready to put the world’s last elephant down. Colt and Birdy act swiftly in an attempt to save Lucy, accidentally putting themselves in danger far from help.
Historically it has been more difficult to get boys to read, so D’Ath appealing to boys with a central character makes sense. Birdy, the Asian acrobatic girl, is an active participant in the story, acting as an equal not a subordinate to Colt, effectively diversifying the cast.
The perspicacious child may ferret out plot holes: why did Colt act to save a ghost rat when they are so dangerous? Colt acts ‘without knowing why’ a number of times, which always indicates he’s about to use his seemingly limitless superpowers. During the climax Colt isn’t as constrained by the consequences of his superpowers thus breaking set rules. An elephant should never drink salt water at the mouth of a river, not even to build suspense for the climax. When I was of an age to read this level of novel, I would have been caught up in the story; I’m not sure how much I would have focused on the finer details. I tend to think children will focus on the fun of Colt picking up a big adult and spinning round three times before throwing the adult, rather than his motivation.
Extinction of species is a real issue; this story helps children engage with ecological issues without taking personal responsibility nor making them feel guilty. At the end of the book there is a short multiple choice quiz on endangered species. D’Ath has incorporated some likely consequences of loss of animals into his world-building: people usually eat soy meat-substitute instead of meat, insects and spiders proliferate without birds to keep them under control, animal farms have changed in nature under government ownership to keep domestic production controlled and protected.
Social media and people power in action feature in the Last Elephant effectively; children can relate and be inspired. It seems to me that Justin D’Ath may be articulating tools and inspiring a new generation to take action to save the planet.
The book design is appealing. Individual novels in the series are short, the books are a good size for young readers – easily held and opened to read, not intimidating in length. The cover image references traditional circus tents while the featured image on the circus stage alludes to the climax of the novel: Birdy and Colt on Lucy, fending off spiders. Chapters are short with clear headings and images of ghost rats to emphasise the threat in this world. The text size is large and easy to read although I personally prefer fonts that are more round, less elongated. One of the headings included a ‘!’ which was a little unclear to me: I initially thought the ‘!’ was an ‘I’. Maybe that’s just me with my bad eyesight, I don’t know.
Finally, I am very fond of the ol’ story arc, within certain limitations: for this reason I love Babylon 5, for example. The Last Elephant introduces protagonists positioned for more adventures but there is also another element revealed within two short scenes, clearly set for a slow revelatory process while Colt and Birdy have other adventures.
The Last Elephant is an engaging story for children to read in middle to upper primary school and to be read to beginning readers. It’d make a great comic book and TV series as well, providing the production values were high.