Based on the famous true story of Joseph Merrick, Elephant Man is an unforgettable tale about being different, finding happiness in even the hardest circumstances, and discovering beauty inside everyone.
Mariangela Di Fiore has an Italian father and a Norwegian mother and lives in Norway. She studied literature at the University of Oslo and screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles. Her previous publications include a number of books for young people, a cookbook and a nonfiction book and accompanying documentary for adults on the mafia organisation Camorra.
Hilde Hodnefjeld is a Norwegian illustrator, trained at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. She has also studied in Paris and in Iceland. She works as an illustrator and graphic designer. In 2011 she was nominated for the Norwegian Ministry of Culture Illustration Prize for illustrating the book The Master of Farting.
Elephant Man is the brave story of a man who simply wants acceptance. This picture book is based on the life of Joseph Merrick who was born with a debilitating and disfiguring disease. Set in London, in the 1800s, Joseph’s appearance starts to change a few years after birth. His mother sees her child’s beauty, but unfortunately the rest of the world openly ridicules him. Terrified screams and taunts are heard when Joseph shows his face and limbs in public.
His mother dies and his stepmother sees him as a burden. Joseph finds work as a young man but is ridiculed by fellow workers and finds mobility hard with his large limbs. Leaving his job he is forced to take an offer from a showman. It is during his show that a doctor comes to see him after hearing about his disfigurement. Joseph then embarks on an adventure of courage and strength which eventually leads to acceptance.
Elephant Man has some powerful illustrations of Joseph portrayed as a person that is lonely, scared and alienated by society. There is a collection of photos in the text of Joseph and some of the items he used in his short life. I found this really made the story more authentic for me and I’m sure students would feel the same.
In the classroom, I could see this book being very relevant to Social Skills lessons. Some of the topics that could be explored with guided teacher discussion could be trying to accept others even if they look, sound or speak differently to you. Elephant Man could also ignite conversations and reflections with students on giving others a chance, friendship and how words of encouragement can be very powerful.
Christina Casperson, Teacher, QLD
To be honest, when I received this in my review package a few weeks ago I was somewhat taken aback. I wondered how the sad story of Joseph Merrick could possibly be the subject for a picture book and I put it to one side for a while. Then in one of those moments of synchronicity a recently made documentary which examined Merrick’s illness, life and death with the hindsight of modern forensic scientific research screened. My little granddaughter and I watched it and while she found it very sad it was also a good opportunity to talk with her about everyone being different and as she has an intellectual impairment and attends a special school, an even better chance to discuss the students who do not have ‘invisible’ disabilities. That made me get the book off the review shelf and show it to her and I realise now that for older children this is actually a tremendous opportunity to learn something not only about the treatment of disabilities in past times but to foster that sense of compassion that so many of us strive to instil in young ones.
While this is a fictionalised account of Merrick’s life there is clearly the thread of authentic historical detail and cleverly interspersed with sensitive illustrations are facsimiles of original documents and photos. This is not a picture book for younger readers but for readers around 8 and up or for use in conjunction with some classroom experience relating to disabilities, awareness and empathy I think it would be of huge benefit to many students.
Thank goodness that in general so much of society has moved from those ignorant Victorian attitudes, though we still have a long way to go. And also thank goodness that people like Frederick Treves had enough true humanity to make Merrick’s later life as happy as possible.
Recommended for readers from around Year 3 and up with careful debriefing where necessary.
Sue Warren, QLD
The story is based on the actual life of Joseph Merrick in England in and around the time of 1889. The story reveals the important milestones in Joseph's tragic life and describes the world he lived in. Through a text created to represent the main character the author evokes the sympathy and empathy of the reader for the lives of other people also, and this idea is further articulated through the combination of simple ink sketches and accurate sepia images set on brown paper.
Joseph Merrick was born but as he grew he became afflicted by an illness that disfigured him. Society looked down and feared anyone who was different, and like others in a similar predicament, were set apart from society by dislike and intolerance causing them to choose to stay away to avoid peoples cruelty. However some incidents stand out as Joseph's life unravels. It is described through an account of his feelings and hopes as when he first works and later travels with a show. The context is not deeply sad but leaves space for the reader to imagine what it must have been like, nevertheless the narrator stays with the feeling of Joseph's hope of a better life. Here the text weighs heavily on the images and illustrations to deepen the emotive situations he found himself in.
In contrast to his persona is the bawdy, poster paint carnival sign of 'Elephant Man'. With a backdrop of England and King George, a world of class, poverty and refinery and the beginning of education for some and care of the needy. And as Joseph came into the hands of a gentle, wealthy and benevolent doctor, hope and dignity ignite his life for a brief and poignant time.
More historical inquiry of England at that time could be made about Princess Alexandra of Wales and poetry by Isaac Watts. Students can interpret this story and discuss its similarities and differences to other similar texts on similar topics and themes. People have always been excited by extraordinary and bizarre and unbelievable human foibles and this story resounds in Joseph's victory of survival, through hope and happiness making his life complete. Joseph's point of view was always one of optimism and considering others and his endearing character lends itself to eventually meeting likeminded people who share values of kindness and a sense of humanity. Other points of view in this story are represented in the title, the exploitation of people's appearance, Joseph’s perception of himself and other peoples’ narrow minded attitude of acceptance of sameness not differences.
The author has made interpretations of what Joseph Merrick must have felt and said and his perspectives on life and she has articulated them in a style that assures the reader he did not sustain his sadness and celebrated life and his need to be accepted. Students can think interpretively and critically by reading this picture book, develop and apply contextual knowledge and analyse and evaluate similarities and differences in texts on similar topics, themes or plots.
Helen Latimer, NSW
I remember seeing the movie as a child, so it was wonderful to read this book and remember his life again. It is a very moving story which deals with the way Joseph Merrick refused to be a hostage to his disease which caused his body to be deformed and his skin was thick and lumpy. It was always Joseph’s hope he could find friendship and understanding in a society which didn’t deal with people who looked different. It seemed amazing that he found such kindness from such a diverse range of people from Royalty to rich and famous Londoners’, they seemed to be able to look past his form and enjoy his mind and the beauty it produced.
This book is based on his life; Joseph had a genetic disease which deformed his body, this only started to develop later in childhood and it was hard for his family to understand why it was happening. It is a confronting book for children but it illustrates that there are many people out there who suffer from illnesses which are rare and hopefully we can accept them as they are.
The story illustrates spirit and courage, Joseph needed all of these to overcome his circumstances to survive as England was not a very nice place when Joseph lived there but I hope our society today might have treated him better. Joseph loved to write poetry and included in the book is one of his poems which he writes “Tis true my form is something odd, but blaming me is blaming God.”
The age group suggested is 8-12, but I think an older audience might be a better fit; it could be used in Humanities & Social Sciences in the curriculum. His relationships with his family is another area which could be explored, his stepmother really is the stereotype of a stepmother. His poetry could be also used as an English discussion. The book uses real archived photos as well as drawings which is a different way to tell a story, it is text heavy but needs this length of story to cover his life. A moving book which should be every school library.
Felecia Phillips, Tasmanian eSchool, TAS
Elephant Man is a story of overcoming diversity with determination and resilience. Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a boy who is condemned to a workhouse, humiliated and exploited in a circus ‘freak show’ due to his disfigurement and abandoned in a strange country. Throughout his ordeal he remains a man with a beautiful soul who creates beautiful things, writes poetry and longs for someone to share his stories with. Eventually he befriends Dr Fredrick Treves, who organises him a room in the Royal London Hospital.
Despite the tragic ending to Joseph’s life (officially death by suffocation at 27), author Mariangela Di Fiore choses to end her story with a message of hope and release, as Joseph acknowledges he is ‘a person with an illness’ and ventures into the garden he has restricted himself from. The Afterword nicely provides the finish to the real story.
While the words are suitable for a younger age group, the images are very confronting and more suitable for upper primary, lower secondary students. The book depicts a time when attitudes were unfortunately similar to today but behaviours were even more confronting and explicit. In a society where even children are obsessed with personal image, teachers will find this book useful with its themes of bullying, otherness and the importance of valuing inner beauty. It fits nicely with the ACARA general capabilities of ethical understanding, personal and social capability and critical and creative thinking.
While the text is more a documentary of events, Hilde Hodnefjeld’s illustrations include the finer details of Joseph’s deformity and impact greatly on the humanness of the person. The mix of photographic montage for people’s faces, the inclusion of artefacts and Merrick’s writing remind us that there is a real person behind the story; while the pencil sketch illustrations with a mix of solid colour for clothing and overall sepia tones and shadowing help to depict the darker mood and overarching helplessness of Joseph’s situation. This also contrasted effectively with the brighter, solid colours to highlight the happier moments of Joseph’s life.
This is a heartfelt story, of a child longing to be in relationship with others, to have friends to laugh with and share stories with, still relevant today.
Kylie Pedler, EAL Teacher, SA
This hard-backed picture book looks like it could blend into the Picture Book section of any library, but it’s not the kind of picture book a five-year-old would pick up and appreciate alone. Elephant Man is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, who from an early age developed a crippling disease and was dubbed: ‘Elephant Man’.
'Gather round - prepare to be amazed! A sight so very gruesome that you simply won't believe it. Ladies and gentlemen - THE ELEPHANT MAN!' This was the catch cry at the circus where people would pay to see a freak show and then scream in terror.
The disease Joseph had was neurofribomatosis type 1 combined with Proteus syndrome. Although Joseph was born a normal healthy boy, large cauliflower-like growths started to disfigure his body from a young age, making many everyday tasks increasingly difficult. He was bullied and ostracised at school, found it hard to obtain a job that he could physically manage, and then when he did get one he was treated as an outcast. When he lost his job, he became a freak in a circus side-show.
Despite all this, Joseph continued to live as best he could with dignity and gentleness. Joseph wanted people to see past the disfigurement and get to know him as a person. Eventually a doctor in England befriended him (although he couldn’t cure him), and his friends took an interest in Joseph’s poetry and life.
This book has simple text suitable for 7 to 15 year olds. The beautiful illustrations are subdued in their colour adding atmosphere to the book. There are also illustrations of original documents adding authenticity to the story. I have read this book to various classes and we have had interesting discussions on themes like the need for understanding and love, bullying and the acceptance of others and then I left the book out for students to peruse over the illustrations. We also made links to fairy tales with the ‘wicked stepmother’ theme and we had discussions around blended families. Joseph’s mother loved him unconditionally. Unfortunately, she died young and his stepmother was cruel and hateful towards Joseph.
Nova Gibson, Librarian, Massey Primary
Elephant Man is about a man who was strange and different looking from all other humans. It details how he was treated and taken advantage of by others. Elephant Man, Joseph, never lost faith in humanity even when the Austrian man stole his money. Joseph believed that the Austrian would return.
It is a story of injustice and rejection of another human for being different, however it is also a story of hope and friendship and ultimately the need to belong and be accepted. I believe that in the classroom this book would aid in social and moral issues.
The Elephant Man has a very strong message for children, and adults alike – that is the impact our words and actions can have on someone else and on their life. This message is very relevant across all school grades however the length of the book and the language used I believe is more appropriate for upper primary and high school.
The Elephant Man translated by Rosie Hedger provides a profound look at how a young man overcame adversity to prove that inside everyone is a person who thinks and cares about the world around them. Using memoirs, notes and historical photos, this well researched picture book allows children a view of man who is bullied and abused but continues to fight to be treated just like anyone else. The matter of deformity is treated in a matter of fact manner making it clear that no blame can be attached to anyone and that there is a scientific explanation that does not detract from the heart and soul of a person.
The late 1800s were not the best times to have a severe deformity or be classified as different in England. Di Fiore gently explains the treatment of Joseph Merrick by the society of the day allowing students to compare that to the treatment that is seen in our modern society today. The concept of circus freaks and the lack of options for people who are different to society are neatly explained. Photos provide discussion starters for classes especially if they were paired with modern issues such as androgynous/transgender and modern people suffering Proteus syndrome. The photos of people who are simply from another country will spark questions of why they were consider alien at the time. The use of photographic collage elements give students a view of the world that Merrick dealt with on a daily basis with tones that suit the mood of the story.
Suitable for years three and above in areas such as personal development, self-esteem, bullying and YCDI (You Can Do It) lessons. Visual literacy discussions using illustrative style, colour and mood, texture and shape. Older year levels could have discussions and research regarding changing perceptions and treatment of deformity, medical development and social welfare.
Jo Corcoran, Teacher Librarian, Highfields State School, QLD
This is a heart-breaking but uplifting story of a young man so badly deformed that he was sent to one of the infamous workhouses of 19th century England at a time when any disability - physical or mental, visible or invisible – was treated with such suspicion that the only solution by ‘genteel society’ was to lock the sufferers away. “Out of sight, out of mind” would summarise the concept well. Seeking to escape, Joseph found that exhibiting himself in a human oddities show had more appeal than the life he was living – a sad indictment of the times, indeed. But out of the inhumanity comes Frederick Treves who changes Joseph’s life.
Merrick’s life has been the subject of books, films, plays and documentaries so that over 100 years on, it is still a fascination. This picture book, based on fact but fictionalised by the inclusion of thoughts and conversations, and cleverly sprinkled with original photos and documents, might seem to have little place in the collection of a primary school of the 21st century. But its value is far-reaching for all Joseph really wanted was to be accepted for who he was inside, not his external appearance; as a person first and a person with an illness last. Extreme example it may be, but what a discussion starter for body image, racism, religious perspectives and all those other characteristics that judgements are made on. Older students might even examine Hitler’s view of ‘Aryan supremacy’ or Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise (http://www.janeelliott.com/).
The book also stands as a testament to how far we have come in our perception and treatment of those who are not “perfect” in a very short time in human history. As we mark the centenary of World War I, students are reading of those who returned disabled and “shell-shocked”, often shunned by society and certainly with little social support as attitudes did not change. Indeed, the biggest turnaround was in 1981 in the UN-declared International Year of Disabled Persons and there was a global spotlight on each nation having a plan of action for “equalization of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities.” From looking at something as basic as entry into public buildings we now have federal government legislation Disabled Standards for Education (https://education.gov.au/disability-standards-education) which demands that we adapt our environments and our teaching for inclusivity. While there is still much to do, gradually we are getting there and it is the understanding, tolerance and idealism of our young that will continue the march. We should do these things because they are the right thing to do not because we are compelled by legislation.
Elephant Man is not a gratuitous story about some freak-show oddity – it is a story about a man whose message reaches out across time to teach us so much about belonging, compassion and identity. There is more information about Joseph Merrick at http://www.biography.com/people/elephant-man-joseph-merrick
Barbara Braxton, Teacher Librarian, NSW