In the heartwarming YA novel When Elephants Fly, Lily, a teen genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, recalls memories of her abusive past after she witnesses a captive elephant’s violent rejection of its newborn. She’s compelled to take action after learning about the problematic living conditions of wild animals held in captivity, but is she willing to risk her sanity to save the life of a baby elephant?
Lily is an 18-year-old high school student who lives a fearful, cautious life because of her family history of schizophrenia. Guided by her protective single dad, she has a detailed plan on how to avoid any stress and activities over the next 12 years that could cause the mental illness to be triggered in her.
In preparation for attending college as a journalism major, Lily takes an internship at the local newspaper, where she is given the lightweight assignment of covering the birth of the local zoo’s new elephant, nicknamed Swifty. During an interview at the zoo, Lily sees the mother elephant reject and nearly kill its newborn calf, which reminds her of the traumatizing experiences she’s had with her own mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia.
When the news breaks of Swifty’s rejection, the traveling circus that owns the siring elephant lays claim to the baby calf, whose health has begun to rapidly decline. While the zoo administrator is adamant that Swifty won’t long survive circus life, Lily at first believes perhaps that the baby animal would be better off in a different environment. But as Lily continues investigating Swifty’s situation, she considers intervening, but is hesitant for fear of jeopardizing her own mental health. Can she save both her sanity and a dying baby elephant?
Yes, wow. What an incredible story!
It tugs at the heartstrings on so many levels, tackling the fear and stigma of mental illness; the complicated relationship between parents and children; the limitations of friendship; and how wild animals are at risk of extinction in both the wild and in captivity because of human interference.
I’ve long been a long supporter of wildlife organizations, including elephant sanctuaries, so I wondered how author Nancy Richardson Fischer would handle certain controversial issues; for instance, are wild animals better off in zoos than in the entertainment industry? In the end, I thought Fischer did a thorough job of presenting all sides, while keeping the story interesting.
People can sometimes be turned off by what they view as preachy activism propaganda, but that is not what this book is. Aside from shining a spotlight on the living conditions of elephants in places like zoos and circuses, Fischer delves into the world of mental illness. Lily knows her family mental health history and the likelihood of schizophrenia one day presenting itself in her. In her effort to shield herself from it in every way, she can sometimes come off as self-absorbed and even a bit apathetic towards the struggles of others. But then for the first time she’s faced with something that might be bigger than her, which makes her reassess her life choices.
Once I started reading When Elephants Fly, I did not want to put it down and I finished it in two days (it usually takes me about a week to read a book). I’m not typically drawn to YA novels, and given the subject matter for this book, I feared it would be a depressing tale filled with teen angst and heart-wrenching animal abuse sequences. Turns out, there was no reason to fear. When Elephants Fly is a truly compelling, well-written story with so much heart and hope. I enjoyed every bit of it, and highly recommend it for teens as well as adults.
A note on the cover and design: Presented in small hardcover format, the design’s light blue background with black details is really beautiful and is printed on thick non-slip paper (which made it easy to hold for several hours at a time, because like I mentioned, I did not want to put this book down). The cover shows Lily climbing a steep staircase, representing the difficult journey she’s about to embark on, with its curved top meant to evoke the image of an elephant’s trunk. There’s also birds flying at the top of the stairs symboling hope and freedom. The attractive packaging makes this book one you’ll want to keep facing outward on your bookcase.