Picture Book Spotlight: The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant

“The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant” by Barbara Seuling
Published: Random House Childrens Books, 1977
Pages: 40
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There are a lot of children’s books about relationships between two close friends. Most of the time, they’re simple stories about best friends who go through some kind of conflict and come out the other side with a stronger bond. Sometimes they give off an entirely different vibe.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is about two elephants who can’t make it through life without each other. It’s very upfront about this only a few pages in, as the Great Big Elephant prepares to take his sick cousin’s place at the Circus Maximus during a short illness:

“Will you go?” asked the Very Small Elephant.
“Of course,” said the Great Big Elephant. “I must go. Someone needs me.”
“But I need you,” said the Very Small Elephant.

The book is divided into three different stories, each about how they support each other through life’s minor inconveniences. In the first story, the Very Small Elephant, after failing to trick the Great Big Elephant into turning down his stint at the circus, resigns himself to passing the time with letters until his friend returns.

Why would his friend turn down an opportunity to wear these beads?

In the second story, my personal favorite, the Very Small Elephant’s Aunt Matilda comes to visit and he has no idea how to handle it. The Great Big Elephant has to walk him through the steps for being a good host, including how to feed her, how to provide bedding, and where to take her. Aunt Matilda’s trip is described exactly like every awkward visit you’ve ever had with an elderly relative and I love it.

Perfect souvenir choices right there. They totally could not get peanut fudge at home.

In the last story, the Great Big Elephant is rescued by the Very Small Elephant from a mud pit and wrestles with his self-worth. It’s a remarkable moment after he’s spent the last two stories keeping the Very Small Elephant into collapsing on the kitchen floor in a puddle of tears, but everyone needs validation sometimes, I guess. Naturally, he gets his moment to rescue the Very Small Elephant, and the companions are happy again.

It’s difficult to read this book as an adult and not get the feeling that the elephants are more than friends. They have separate houses, but the emotional bond and day-to-day co-dependence reads like they are two very different personalities trying to approach life as a couple. In that regard, it reminds me very much of  Frog and Toad, another children’s series with a same-sex subtext. As the accomplished author left a wife behind when she passed in 2016, that subtext may have been intentional. Whether it was or not, the book is a beautiful depiction of love in the middle of everyday, mundane problems.

Much of Seuling’s work was illustrated by other people, which I was sorry to learn, because I’m fond of the book’s gentle linework. The facial expressions on the elephants tell me exactly how the characters are feeling, from their raised eyebrows to the curl of their trunks, and it’s fun to see when she’ll choose to pose them on two feet or four. The backgrounds are detailed when they need to be, and sparse when it serves the story.

The Great Big Elephant and the Very Small Elephant is a long read as a picture book, and works best in smaller doses. I recommend reading the chapters on different nights until your child is ready to read on their own, which is what I did with my daughter. Even when I partitioned the book, she seemed less interested than I was at her age. There isn’t much action… I may be keeping this one around for me.

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter

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