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Ralph D. Helfer, The World's Greatest Elephant

Based on the actual life-long friendship between Bram Gunterstein and elephant Modoc, this riveting picture book chronicles the pair's incredible story. In the opening scene, Josep, an elephant trainer, cradles his baby, Bram, in the shadow of a towering elephant and her newborn, Modoc. "I can only hope these two will always be together," Josep says, in a prophetic statement. Muted hues of brown and gray, offset by sparing use of circus red, reflect the tale's sober tone. Separation remains a constant threat, personified by circus owner Mr. North, who becomes Modoc's cruel owner and refuses to take Bram with him. Lewin's (Peppe the Lamplighter ) illustrations make the strong connection between elephant and boy nearly palpable: one full-bleed spread depicts a close-up view of Modoc's eye, reflecting Bram's face; another shows Bram and Modoc on a ship's deck, trunk and arm intertwined, gazing at the Statue of Liberty. Helfer compresses a decades-long story by highlighting such dramatic events as a shipwreck, a war and a fire; a couple of scenes, such as Mr. North's discovery of the pair in India, would feel like a Hollywood movie, except that all of the events actually occurred. Helfer's (The Island of Dr. Moreau ) impeccable pacing keeps the suspense high as he builds the emotional connection between his two heroes—one human, one animal. An author bio reveals Helfer's own role in this often wrenching, ultimately heartwarming true story. Ages 6-up. (Mar.)