What we’re reading: Tusk Tusk by David McKee

Explaining the darker and more difficult sides of human life to your child is one of the more challenging parts of parenting.

Often you don’t get a chance to prepare because the questions catch you off guard.

And there are certain subjects that we adults simply do not truly understand ourselves, like the senseless war Russia is raging against Ukraine.

But when you can’t find the right words, books are there to help.

Some of the greatest children’s stories have at their heart rather complex themes, told sensitively and subtly.

For me, Tusk Tusk by David McKee is one of these amazing books that tackles dark subject matter in a child-appropriate but not patronising way.

He has form for this, with the heart breaking and darkly comic Not Now, Bernard, which many people my age will remember but have not appreciated fully until they read it to their own kids.

The Conquerers and Two Monsters touch on similar themes of war and disagreement too.

David is most famous for Dr Benn and his Elmer books, and in this story, he uses elephants once again to share a story of tolerance – and what horrors can happen when we allow our paranoia about those who are different against them.

The story plays out like a modern fable, with black elephants and white elephants living alongside each other and loving all creatures, apart from their opposite hue of elephant.

They keep to their own sides of the jungle until their suspicion of the other overcomes them.

The elephants start to fight, battling to the death and culminating in their own extinction.

No elephants are seen for many years until one day, a herd of grey elephants emerge from the trees. These are the grandchildren of the peace-loving black and white elephants who fled when the war broke out and their tolerance has saved them.

The combination of simple language and complex themes makes Tusk Tusk a masterpiece, especially when combined with David’s extraordinary illustrations. Oliver Jeffers rates it as one of the best picture books of all time – which is high praise indeed.

And as a child of Northern Ireland, I am sure it spoke to him in a unique way.

David’s signature psychedelic backgrounds against the stark black and white of the elephants is a key part of the narrative. These are not the multicoloured, joyful nellies of Elmer’s ilk at all.

Depicting the two ‘sides’ in these colours also raises questions about race and about opposing opinions. It might have been published in 1978 but my goodness, the way that arguing in black and white can rip apart in society and families have never been more relevant.

Life is a more complex shade of grey.

One of my favourite parts is how the elephants’ trunks became their weapons, first as shaking fists and later as guns and fists. And the final page delivers the most crucial message, for parents as much as children.

“But lately the little ears and the big ears have been giving each other strange looks.”

Learn from history, try to learn from the mistakes of previous generation and don’t allow them to happen again.

The horrors being committed in Ukraine suggest we’ve forgotten this lesson.

I just hope today’s children are wiser and heed it.

Tusk Tusk by David McKee. £6.99, Anderson Press. <a href="http://<a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tusk-David-McKee/dp/1783446617/ref=sr_1_1?crid=315P2Y047T2ZP&keywords=tusk+tusk&qid=1647621409&s=books&sprefix=tusk+tusk%252Cstripbooks%252C81&sr=1-1&_encoding=UTF8&tag=bookswithbaby-21&linkCode=ur2&linkId=b6e081063399d9fe27dfa51c205fa420&camp=1634&creative=6738">Tusk TuskBuy from Amazon.

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The best picture books to talk about grief and death
David McKee shares the books that made him
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