An Elephant and a Mouse Walk into a Bakery…
Little Elliot Big City – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2014
Little Elliot Big Family – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Little Elliot Big Fun – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2016
Little Elliot Fall Friends – Mike Curato, Henry Holt and Company, 2017
Mike Curato is a relatively new but rising star author and illustrator and Little Elliot is a sweet and vulnerable elephant of small stature who successfully negotiates many difficulties with the help of his friend, Mouse. They live in a time and place unnamed in the books, but which is clearly 1940s New York City and environs. Elliot, white with pastel colored polka dots, is acutely conscious of being different. He also suffers anxiety over a number of problems, such as not being able to reach the counter in his favorite Italian-American Speranza bakery, or confronting the terrors of a big amusement park (Coney Island). The books are saved from being formulaic or saccharine through Curato’s understated text and his brilliantly executed pictures, which manage to evoke both a specific and nostalgic era and the timeless universe of young children. While Elliot follows in the grand tradition of de Brunhoff’s anthropomorphized Babar, he is a younger and more innocent character in a less complex universe.
The cover of the first book introduces Elliot standing in front of a row of urban apartment buildings with the Chrysler Building in the background. The letters “Big City” are the size of tall buildings and they are dotted with windows like the structures behind them. We enter Elliot’s world to learn how difficult it is for him to huddle on a crowded train track, hail a cab, or reach the ice cream in his freezer. He seems to live a lonely but independent life in his pre-war apartment, until he meets an even smaller but perhaps more resourceful Mouse, who is fishing for half-eaten pizza in a Central Park garbage can. Elliot helps him; this is the beginning of beautiful friendship.
By the second book, Elliot and Mouse apparently live together, but Mouse needs to visit his extended family and Elliot is temporarily devastated.
Curato captures this emotion by picturing Elliot leaning sadly on the windowsill and looking out at the street, one lone elephant in an apparently empty building. He runs to the subway, passing a kosher deli (the window sign says “kosher” in Hebrew), and boards the Lexington Avenue local. This picture alone is worth the price of admission. Elliot sits apart from the other passengers, reading a small red book. The train’s posters advertise “Dan the Piano Man” and “Bryant Wrist Watches: the Epitome of Class.” Two mothers read a book about transportation to their children while other riders’ faces are obscured their open newspapers. When Elliot emerges from this underground passage, he sadly watches other New Yorkers having fun eating in a luncheonette playing chess outside a Chinese establishment on the Lower East Side, and skating at Rockefeller Center.
There is plenty travel to the past in these beautiful pictures with muted green marble and red plush theater seats, but there are also people of different colors and ethnicities in every scene. After Elliott is reduced to tears, the lone viewer in the movie theater, he is finally reunited with his friend and welcomed as a kind of mouse-in-law. The following two books show Mouse helping Elliot to conquer his fears of a huge roller coaster and a terrifying clown, as well as allowing them both to experience the joys of the country on a limited basis, as they take a bus to pick apples and enjoy a feast with some friendly farm animals.
There is also a board book edition of Little Elliot Big City, and one Elliot toy, so far, a little stuffed elephant with polka dots. I would think a toy Mouse would be the obvious addition; for our grandson we improvised with a different toy mouse approximately fit to scale. Another entry in the Elliot series is expected before the next holiday season, Merry Christmas, Little Elliot. I hope it has some multicultural references, maybe a visit to that deli for Chanukah latkes (potato pancakes). Curato has also illustrated works by other authors, including Margarita Engle’s All the Way to Havana, which also features retro vehicles. Curato illustrated J.J. Austrian’s charming tribute to marriage equality, Worm Loves Worm. He has a new book to be released in April, What If… by Samantha Berger. We can look forward to more of his work.