The Elephant in the Room: Pachyderm Meets Armored Vehicle

Tilly and Tank– Jay Fleck, Tundra Books, 2018


Tilly and Tank reminds me of Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Ferdinand. The gentle bull who has no interest in fighting, but only wants to sit in a field of flowers, seems to have been a bit of an inspiration to author and illustrator Jay Fleck.  Tilly is an innocent elephant who, seeing Tank, believes him to be a fellow member of his own species.  After all, “It had a trunk and a tail, just like she did.”  Then again, this creature is green, not a typical shade for elephants.  The defensive tank is ready to respond to an attack as he pictures Tilly in the crosshairs.  Given the soft colors and simple text, you just know this story isn’t going to end in a dreadful battle.  Both characters realize their respective mistakes, kind of, and they make friends.

Fleck’s delicate and comforting story manages to avoid overt moralizing about how people can avoid conflict and embrace their common humanity.  Instead, Tilly gradually recognizes, although she never articulates her realization, that Tank may not be a member of her tribe, but still be nice. She is bright blue and has feminine eyelashes. We first see her strolling through the forest with two brightly colored birds perched on her back. This is a fable; the setting doesn’t much resemble the habitat of either an elephant or a tank.  Fleck’s picture of Tilly and Tank’s first encounter is an ingenious arrangement of four different poses. Tilly examines the vehicle’s weapon and the birds follow her path.  On the next page, her tentative greeting of “Hello” is tall font is returned with an act of aggression, a two page explosive “BOOM” on a flaming red background.  Even young children listening to the book will wonder if this failure to communicate might be fatal.


While Ferdinand, as you recall, is passive, withdrawing to “sit under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly,” Tilly takes action, taking the risk of bringing flowers to Tank.  Tank regrets his error and returns a beautiful bouquet sprouting from him gun, a kind of 1960s poster image of resistance to senseless violence.  The “happy sound” emanating from the hearts of both Tilly and Tank is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The last image we seem of them is from the back, Tilly leaning against a former weapon of war as they gaze into the sunset.  Where have all the flowers gone? They’re right here, in this lovely book about avoiding dangerous misconceptions and being open to friendship. Tilly and Tank is well worth sharing with young readers.

tilly flowers

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