The Elevator – written and illustrated by Yael Frankel, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude
Tapioca Stories, 2019
It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to write about a children’s book based on the imaginative possibilities of elevators. Actually, as you can tell from the name of my blog, I do, but a new publishing house has given me another opportunity. A child enters the elevator in her apartment building and leaves a changed person, in a story combining real urban dwellers with a magical realist element. The black and white cartoon style artwork, accented with touches of bright red, calls to mind the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, (link), the Italian illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, but, principally, Yael Frankel’s own fertile imagination.
What is it about elevators? They are a small space, so whatever takes place within them is concentrated. They allow for isolation, or for interaction among very different individuals under strange circumstances. Here, a little girl boards the elevator to take her dog for a walk. Either she has supplied her own stepladder or, less probably, the elevator includes one. This oddity sets the fanciful tone of the book, where the unusual meets the more probable on every floor. As in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, normal expectations get turned upside down. The elevator goes in the wrong direction. People board with conflicting goals.
This is a multigenerational elevator, a microcosm of society. Mr. Miguel is “the oldest person in the whole building,” while Cora‘s twins in their double stroller may be the youngest. People become confused and one twin has to be removed from her stroller and comforted. But there is never a real sense of fear. The birthday cake which Ms. Paula is conveniently carrying provides some respite, but the most calming part of the strange trip is Mr. Miguel’s story about a bear “who always said he didn’t care when he did.” Whether or not Ms. Frankel intended this to be an allusion to Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, the boy who responds to every situation with “I don’t care,” the connection popped out at me.
Just when Mr. Miguel’s bear story becomes its most riveting, the elevator returns everyone to reality. People who had thought they had little in common learn that they actually do, and the book concludes. As Mr. Miguel declares without any irony, “After all, who cares whether they ever fix the elevator?” But the best feature of the book is the deft way in which Frankel delivers this message. Maybe the apartment building’s residents will all become best friends; maybe they only traveled together on one meaningful journey. We don’t actually know if the bear, like Pierre, learned to care. In fact, his ostensible lack of caring may even have been a kind of Zen acceptance or a ploy to encourage others to take care of one another. If you are reading The Elevator with children (adults may enjoy it on their own), you could raise some of these questions with them, along with ones about imagination and reality, which typically intersect in children’s minds. This elevator rewards more than one ride.