Elephant Man by Mariangela Di Fiore and Hilde Hodnefjeld (Annick Press 2015) is a difficult picture book for older children about an obscure deformed man in history, one that was famous in his own way but tragically alone.
Joseph Merrick was born to a loving mother, and his earliest years were full of nurturing because he appeared completely normal. As he grew to a few years old, however, he began to develop horrible growths all over his body, which gave a horrible stench and completely altered his appearance. Some even believed it looked like he was growing a trunk from his forehead. As can be predicted in the early 1800s, when his loving mother died when he was 11, his stepmother did not have the patience or the love for the smelly and ugly child, and Joseph found himself on his own, seeking a job in England where all were simply repelled by him.
Joseph’s story is not a happy one. He was a part of the circus, and he was an “act” that elicited screams from the audience. He was a part of a touring group in Europe, where the owner abandoned him in the night and he found himself stranded in a country in which he could not speak the language. He was a lonely man, wishing for love and acceptance, all the while being forced to acknowledge that he was different.
In his later years, Joseph found some peace. A doctor in a London hospital provided care and housing for him, and Joseph found some friendship among visitors in the hospital. The book includes some speculation as to what may have caused his deformity and subsequent death.
Biographies like Elephant Man are so important to read. It’s important that kids understand that the world is full of different people. It’s important to see the stamina and determination of people that have difficult lives. So many children these days do not face difficulties and discrimination. Others do, but the world is quite different. Reading about Joseph Merrick was heart-breaking but also inspiring. He was a sweet person wishing for friendship. I hope people these days read his story and are more inclined to be accepting and understanding of those with physical limitations and differences.
Side note: Elephant Man reminded me so much Auggie, from the novel Wonder. It would be a nice supplement.
Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.