Elephant Man – an historical picture book

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Although classified as a picture book, Elephant Man is closer to an illustrated non-fiction text. The multi media images – collage, photographs, drawings – stunningly support the detailed exploration of Joseph Merrick’s life. Translated by Rosie Hedger from the original book written by Mariangelo Di Fiore, and illustrated by Hilde Hodnefjeld, Elephant Man is available through Allen and Unwin. 

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The narrative opens with shocking quotes that reveal Joseph’s position as a ‘disgusting’ and ‘gruesome’ sideshow attraction, before flashbacks reveal his early life when he ‘looked like any other baby’. Forced to leave school at 12 years of age by his stereotypically cruel stepmother, Joseph endures isolation and bullying from his co-workers in a cigar factory. He then roamed the streets of London in a long overcoat and hood, searching for work, but ‘people avoided … him because he smelled odd … even stray dogs … kept their distance’. IMG_7614

Showman Tom Norman convinced Joseph that he could earn good money by appearing on stage by explaining that “People love to see ugly things on display”. Here, he is invited to visit London Hospital by Doctor Frederick Treves who ultimately provides a welcoming home for Joseph with medical and financial support.

We develop empathy for Joseph’s suffering through matter-of-fact descriptions of specific symptoms that create difficulty in walking, talking, eating and sleeping. The afterward speculates on the nature of Joseph’s illness, suggesting the conditions of Proteus syndrome and neurofibromatosis, which are caused by genetic mutations. IMG_7615

Although written in third person, various language features, such as italicized internal monologues, make this text suitable for helping students understand how characters reveal concepts such as point of view. The muted colour palette adds both historical authenticity to the bleak conditions of Victorian poverty and support for the melancholic tone.

The universal need for love and acceptance is made clear in the closing pages where we learn of Joseph’s quiet dignity as he writes poetry, builds models and reads about a world he cannot inhabit. This book offers a powerful opportunity for us to reflect on our ability to reach out to those who need to feel ‘safe and sound’.

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It’s been over 125 years since the death of Joseph Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’. Now, using Merrick’s skeleton, a team of experts have brought Joseph Merrick back to life.Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 5.37.09 pm

 This riveting documentary explores the life of a contemporary American sufferer, and actors using prosthetics to recreate how Merrick would have walked and talked. It is worth searching out this related material – it aired on ABC 2 on Friday, February 26, 2016.

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