A Teenage Girl’s Life-Changing Encounter With Elephants


Simon Worrall, National Geographic

Date Published

Next week, the Library of Congress will celebrate award-winning children’s book author Sheila Hamanaka and her new graphic novel for young readers about the ivory trade and its impact on elephants. Sponsored by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, A Dangerous Life describes the adventures of an American teenage girl named Amelia and the life-changing events she witnesses in Africa.

For Hamanaka, writing and illustrating the book meant overcoming a disability that would defeat most artists. Here, she talks about the role art can play in the battle to save the elephant, why it is too easy to blame China’s burgeoning consumption of ivory for the problem, and how she used CCTV to help her capture the colors and textures of Africa.

Your other children’s books have focused on the experience of Japanese Americans. Explain what made you turn to Kenya for this book.

I am a Sansei Japanese American, meaning third generation. And The Journey [her first book, published in 1990] was about the history of Japanese Americans—particularly in the period they were put into concentration camps during World War II. My own parents were in a concentration camp in Arkansas. That’s where they met.

This project started when I got a call from the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington. They said they wanted to do a book about elephants and mentioned they were working with the Kenya Wildlife Service, which was willing to send me on a trip to Kenya. So I went to Africa to meet people and hear stories. I also went in search of a feeling. And, of course, to see elephants!

The book starts with an American teenager flying to Kenya on safari. Like many teenagers, she has a problematic relationship with her mother. Then she has an encounter that alters her life.

She’s angry with her mother, and not unlike other teenagers she does something very rash. She takes off across unknown territory, where there are lions and crocodiles. And she stumbles across the corpse of an elephant. An elephant without a face. The poachers cut off their faces with axes or chain saws, because a third of the tusk is in the head. She’s traumatized by this. At the scene is a little baby elephant. The mother has been slaughtered, and Amelia and her friends help rescue the baby.

The incident is based on something that happened to me in Africa. The KWS rangers had taken us to the Sheldrick sanctuary, in Tsavo East National Park, where the older orphaned elephants are released into the custody of wild herds. A new rescue had just arrived, a very small and very frightened two-month-old orphan. She was running in little circles, distressed, but when we knelt down and held out our hands, she approached us tentatively and nuzzled our fingers. It was shocking, how appealing this baby was—photos just do not convey this. Of course, one does not take elephants home, but for a fleeting second this feeling gripped me. Then I understood: Oh, this is how the mothers feel, only more so.

By chance, we are talking on the day it was announced that one of Kenya’s most beloved big tuskers, Satao, was killed by poachers for his ivory. What are your feelings today?

It makes me really sad. It almost seems like it was some old fellow, a person, who had been spending his life doing his own thing and got killed. They said he used to love hanging out at the waterfall.

I’ve never seen a mutilated elephant in person. But I’ve seen enough horrible photos of them. It’s really gruesome and shocking. So I wanted to bring home this image of faceless elephants in the book. There’s a dream sequence. The Chinese boy, Kai, is suffering from guilt about owning an ivory carving of the Asian goddess, Matsu. In the dream, he sees this faceless elephant, who says: “Help me, I can’t see where we are going.”

It’s interesting that you mention that line because you yourself are legally blind, aren’t you?

Yes. I have glaucoma, which is a degeneration of the optic nerve. Strangely enough, being Japanese American is a risk factor. Many Asians have what’s called low-pressure glaucoma. But by the time I figured out I had it, it was pretty advanced.

Which makes your work even more remarkable. You’re a visual artist who is visually impaired. Can you talk about your creative process? What special equipment do you use?

Before I went to Africa, I was given a CCTV by one of the doctors at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. There’s a flat screen you can view things on. It’s just amazing! You can put a poppy seed on there and enlarge it to the size of a watermelon. So little details I wouldn’t be able to paint or draw, I was able to work on with the help of this machine. I was also working with three other artists, who pitched in.

What about traveling in Africa? What sort of hurdles did you face there?

It was actually not much of a problem. You hold someone’s arm when you’re negotiating stairs. They make sure you don’t step on poisonous snakes. Many people think of blindness as like a black screen in front of your eyes, as though someone has pulled the curtains. I’m missing parts of my vision. I can see the whole, but I am missing parts. So I do a lot of compensating, by scanning back and forth when I am reading or drawing.

The illustrations are often incredibly detailed. Do you use special lenses or glasses?

I can do all the sketches myself, but I have to make sure I am using a heavier, darker pencil than I would if my vision was better. It’s the detailed parts that need special attention. I use the CCTV. Sometimes I will put my visual reference on the screen and enlarge it, and work on it with the artwork next to it. I also worked with three other artists on the book. One of them is actually a tattoo artist, who of course can do really detailed work.

Your other books have been picture books, but you chose the graphic novel [format] for this book. Why?


I thought the graphic novel would be good for a couple of reasons. First of all, here in the United States, a lot of kids don’t read at all. But librarians have told me that when they started to add graphic novels, they just flew off the shelves! So I said: Let’s get the message out as widely as possible. Let’s do it like a comic book.

What age group is the book aimed at?

Ten through fourteen. Middle school children are the most voracious readers of any age group. That’s when they begin to feel empowered. They are very passionate and haven’t become jaded yet.

You smuggle in lots of information and facts about colonialism, the ivory trade, and poaching. Was it a challenge to do that without overburdening the narrative?

As a writer you always worry about that. Which is why the dialogue is very compressed, and things happen very fast. So I am hoping that it will be effective, despite all the information.

How can A Dangerous Life help save the African elephant?

I don’t know if it can. The demise of elephants is just one aspect of the demise of the entire planet, which is going on before our eyes. It’s not just elephants. It’s the entire world that is being consumed by profit, and destroyed in the process.

You sound pessimistic. Are you?

One of the rules of children’s book writing is that you have to have an upbeat ending. You can’t end your book: And then Goldilocks committed suicide [laughs]. So, officially, as a children’s book author I am very optimistic—I think we can turn things around, educate the next generation. But, personally, am I pessimistic? … Yeah. But I’m not depressed to the point I am not going to do anything. Once you realize how bad things are, you can step forward and reach out to other people.

Do you think the solution lies within Kenya—more money, more rangers—or is it the global economic system and China’s appetite for ivory?

It’s all of them. At one point in the book, Jubari, the son of the ranger, is worried about his mother, because rangers get ambushed by poachers. And he says to the other kids, “Ask yourself, who really pulls the trigger? Is it greed, or poverty, or just ignorant people who want beautiful things?” And it’s really all of those things.

If you are dispossessed, and have lost your land, and have no way of making a living, it’s very easy for someone to say, “Look, you can make some money poaching.” It’s like in New York City, you have a situation where there is 50 percent unemployment in Harlem, so of course kids are going to jump turnstiles or commit crimes.

These are complex, historical problems. But one of the things I was trying not to engage in is what is called “China bashing.” You hear on the news: “China is buying all the ivory; if they stopped, there wouldn’t be this problem,” and often there’s a note of contempt. I believe in holding governments and corporations accountable. But to do it on a racial or ethnic basis is a very dangerous thing. You are also not going to win anyone over!

The book ends with a call to action to save the elephant. What can kids do?

I think one of the things they do best is talk to their friends. Once you are familiar with the issue, and you can have a feeling for the plight of elephants, you will be moved to act. People are moved to act by feelings. That’s the role of literature and art: to touch people, so they will then do something.

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