cover image A Perfect Friend

A Perfect Friend

Reynolds Price. Atheneum Books, $16 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-689-83029-7

HIn his first book for children, Price pens a slow, dreamy story of a boy wrestling with grief over his mother's death. Ben Barks, now 11, and his mother used to spend hours drawing elephants and reading about them. Ben still dreams of having an elephant of his own, a friend with whom he can share his deepest secrets, in the same way he confides in his dog Hilda, whose voice he sometimes hears in his thoughts. It's Hilda who tells him, ""This thing that's coming will help your whole life""Dand she's right. When a small circus comes to town and Ben meets Sala, a lonely elephant who also knows tragedy, their encounter is both dangerous and magical, filling Ben with hope for the first time since his mother died. For all the boy-animal communication, the novel is driven more by its style than its plot. The languid pace may frustrate readers or leave some feeling strangely disconnected, and it's doubtful whether the target audience will linger over the poetic elisions. At the same time, however, the beauty of the language acts as lure (a house lit up at night looks like ""an old-time ocean liner, afloat and steaming toward some destination that nobody knew""), and Ben is an exceedingly sympathetic character. For those up to the challenge, here is a sophisticated, haunting exploration of grief's flickering shadows, of friendship and love and of the elusive nature of happiness. Ages 9-12. (Sept.) FYI: The jacket illustration is by Maurice Sendak.