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“Suma the Elephant” by Gary Shoup is an unforgettable fable of life and limitations. The book is short, but only because the language is so perfectly succinct. More wisdom exists in its few pages than in many a thick and scholarly book. The story is simple, almost plotless; Suma, a baby elephant, is kidnapped by monkeys who tie her to a tree with a piece of string. Suma grows up believing she cannot escape; even after years have gone by and the monkeys are long dead, the memory of their voices still imprisons her. As the book jacket explains, “We soon realize that Suma’s story is our story.” While Suma’s life is self-defeating, the book inspires readers to examine what restrains them from living their own dreams. The prose’s simplicity forces the sorrow to rise up from between the lines and into the reader’s throat.

The story could be read as a children’s book, and I can easily envision it with brightly colored pictures and cartoon drawings of the elephants and monkeys in a Disney “Jungle Book” style. Some might think it too sad for children, but children will benefit from it if a parent is prepared to answer their questions afterward. Had I read this book as a child, I imagine I would have cried for Suma; the story would have affected me profoundly, lingering in my mind for years; I would have read it over and over until I grew up fully conscious of the mind-forged manacles we inflict on ourselves. And I would have been determined not to let Suma’s fate become mine.

But Gary Shoup was wise enough not to make it a children’s book; his story achieves its full dignity in its elegant design by Joe Kuszai. The large amount of white space on the cover and pages focuses the reader’s attention to the book’s content. The decision to use only black and gray for the illustrations grants the book a dignified sorrow. The story could easily have been written on a couple full sheets of paper, but its division into many pages forces the reader to read it slowly, focusing on the intention of the lines, and if the reader lingers over the artwork before turning the page, the story’s tone is only reinforced in the reader’s mind.

The artwork is perfectly aligned with the tale. The artist, Nan Rae, has focused on elegance and simplicity in the drawings she and Gary Shoup selected for the book. The lack of drawings of the characters prevents distraction from the book’s tone. Each of Rae’s pictures contributes to the meaning of the words it faces; for example, the drawing of the drooping flower enhances the hopelessness of the line, “And after a long while, Suma stopped tugging on the string.”

As much as I admire the choice to have only black and gray drawings in the book, I recommend the reader visit Nan Rae’s website where her talents are fully displayed in the colors she uses. Her method is described as, “Chinese brush painting [that] combines the grace of the Literati style with an impressionist approach to color. The Literati style seeks to transcend the mere representation of a subject to capture its ch'i, or life force, by using a minimum of brush strokes for maximum effect.” Rae succeeds in capturing the ch'i of Suma in her drawings, even though she never depicts Suma herself. Rather than a picture of a sad elephant, we see a drooping flower, while a withering tree symbolizes the band of monkeys that has died. The drawings are like little poems that reflect the emotions of the text.

I can easily see “Suma the Elephant” being a gift for a loved one undergoing a major life event, a graduation, a divorce, a difficult career decision. It is a book of inspiration, a book that makes the reader look into his own soul and ask if he will allow fear and habit to bind him. Even though I am no longer a child, “Suma the Elephant” will linger in my mind for years to come.

- Tyler R. Tichelaar, author of The Marquette Trilogy, MQT REVIEWS

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