By Bill Peet
Bill Peet (1915 – 2002) wrote and illustrated all of his 36 books (most of which remain in print) and I truly love them all. His books are sublime. Full of humor, compassion, and warmth, his stories often focus on friendship, kindness and respect for the environment. Yet Peet was never condescending or didactic, he held his audience in high esteem. That his lengthy, complex books still hold the attention of today’s easily distracted children is a testament to his connection to young minds.
Peet’s lavish, enchanting art was created with colored pencils, pastels and India ink. His illustrations are colorful, detailed, expressive and whimsical. His wholly satisfying books are fantastical journeys into strange yet familiar lands featuring lovable, sympathetic, and usually animal, characters.
Prior to publishing his first book, Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure (1959), Peet worked for Disney Studios (he was there from 1937 to 1964). He worked on several of Disney’s most famous films, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Jungle Book (though his work on that film went uncredited due to a dispute with Walt Disney).
Peet also created the first Disney film to come from a single storywriter, 101 Dalmatians, based on the book by Dodie Smith. He wrote the script, created the storyboards and designed the characters. It was Bill Peet who created the iconic Disney villain, Cruella de Vil, that so many people (myself included) love to hate. Because of Peet’s work with Disney there’s a familiarity to his art; once readers begin to recognize his style, it becomes easy to spot his creations in the films he worked on.
The Ant and The Elephant is a twist on Aesop’s The Lion and the Mouse, in which a meek, small character is remarkably able to help a large, strong character.
While climbing a long blade of grass for a better view of the river, a small ant finds himself in a predicament after being blown by the wind. The minute creature lands on a stick in the middle of the river. He would surely drown if he tried to get to the shore himself, so he asks a nearby turtle for assistance; the grumpy turtle cannot be bothered to help.
Soon enough the turtle finds himself in a bit of a bind, having tipped onto his back while trying to climb onto a rock. He asks a nearby hornbill for a hand and receives a response quite similar to the one he gave the ant.
And so it goes down the line through several unhelpful—and perhaps shortsighted—African animals, until readers are introduced to the noble elephant.
He hears so much with his large ears—“the faint rustle of a leaf, the least snap of a twig, or even the tiny voice of an ant calling.”
The accommodating elephant, having heard all the events of the day, makes his way to the river to assist the miniscule creature. He offers the trapped ant his trunk; the grateful ant crawls on and is deposited safely on the shore of the river. The elephant continues on, helping each of the helpless, and shockingly ungrateful, creatures along the way.
Soon it is the elephant that finds himself in a disabled position; he’s fallen into a ravine.
He calls for help and waits and waits. As the sun sets, the elephant hears the sound of tiny footsteps. Soon, ninety-five thousand ants arrive to help him! They successfully lift the giant beast and carry him up the wall and onto flat ground.
And in return all of the ants climb aboard their new, grateful friend for their first ever elephant ride!
Jennifer Lavonier has lived in Jersey City for over fifteen years and has worked in the children’s book world for nearly twenty years. Prior to his death, she was the assistant to Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. You can find more of her children’s book reviews on her website, TurtleAndRobot.com.