Elephants and Penguins Never Forget

Penguin and Penelope – written and illustrated by Salina Yoon
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

Salina Yoon’s illustrations use simple lines and bright coloring to draw children into her stories.  Her endearing animals draw children into narratives that both entertain and reassure. Penguin and Penelope is the latest in a series about the adventures of a bird so accepting he can make friends with a pinecone, but here his best friend is an elephant.  The idea of different species, or even kingdoms, being drawn to one another is obviously appealing (as in, for example the Little Elliot series by Mike Curato, Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, everything involving Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington).  Here the friends may be mismatched in size, but well-suited together in warmth and empathy.

Penguin looks much like a real penguin, although he is wearing an orange scarf, while Penelope the elephant is a somewhat fanciful purple.  She may be distantly related to Elliot, because she is also hesitant to try new things and seems insecure.  Luckily, Penguin is there to help. He rescues her from a mud puddle, feeds, and bathes her. Her facial expressions evolve from fearful to happy. Every step of their journey together has an obstacle, but also a solution, even if the temporary one of a brief rest.

Penguin is really in charge: “Wherever Penguin went, Penelope followed.” Yet the relationship still seems equitable, because Penguin never tries to make Penelope conscious that she depends on him.  Penelope may be timid, but she is also imaginative and open to new experiences. Initially afraid of the water, she ultimately concludes that “It was like magic.”

The two-page spread of Penguin and Penelope undersea is a joyful statement. In fact, both animals do swim; both this point in common and their obvious differences stand out from the picture.  When they arrive on dry land, Penguin rides on Penelope’s back, a subtle suggestion that the elephant is also able to play a helping role.  As they arrive at the herd’s home, background colors of brown and gold indicate a different habitat, one where Penelope belongs.

Just as in real life, the friends can still cross boundaries.  A dreaming Penelope has “…a hole in her heart that was the size of a penguin,” a truly sad and apt metaphor for missing someone close to you. In Salina Yoon’s world, kindness and love lead to happy resolutions, and both family and friends can fill the empty space that children sometimes encounter.

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