Cover of When Elephants Fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer. A girl climbs a trunk-like staircase that disolves into a flock of birds

About the Book

Title: When Elephants Fly
Published: 2018

Cover Story: And She’s Buying a Stairway to Heaven
Drinking Buddy: Eh…
Testosterone Estrogen Level: High
Talky Talk: Tense
Bonus Factor: Schizophrenia
Bromance Status: Member of the Pack

Cover Story: And She’s Buying a Stairway to Heaven

The staircase is a reference to a tragedy from Lily’s path. It also kind of looks like an elephant trunk. I can dig it.

The Deal:

When Lily was seven, her mentally ill mother tried to jump off a roof with her, attempting to fly like Peter Pan. Lily knows that schizophrenia can be inherited, and now that she’s entered the dangerous age 18-30 phase, she’s determined to do nothing that might set herself off. No stress. No drugs. No drinking. No boys. She works as an intern at a small Oregon newspaper and hangs out with her rich, gay best friend, Cushing. She’s going to take things nice and slow until she hits her thirties and is out of the danger zone for developing mental illness.

But one day, while writing a human interest story about Swifty, the new baby elephant at the local zoo, she witnesses the mother elephant try to trample her calf to death. This brings back all sorts of memories of her mother, which she’s not prepared to face. To make things worse, the circus who provided the stud to create the calf is now legally demanding custody of Swifty, as the zoo is no longer safe for her. This is due in no small part to Lily’s reporting of the incident. Overwhelmed with guilt and a fear for her own sanity, Lily travels with baby Swifty to the Florida circus to plead its case, or otherwise to help the calf adjust to its new home. And maybe bury some of her own demons as well.

Drinking Buddy: Eh…

Two pints of beer cheersing with a "Denied" stamp over them

First of all, Lily won’t drink, as she’s determined to keep an even keel. But as a character, she seemed a little wooden. Her plan to not let anything upset her allows the other characters to run roughshod right over her.

When she witnesses the mother attempt to kill her calf, she refuses to write about it for the paper out of respect for Dr. Addie Tinibu, the Kenyan veterinarian in charge of the elephants. The photographer who’s with her, however, decides to write his own article about the incident, and submits it under Lily’s name. The sensational story helps the paper, but destroys the zoo’s elephant preservation program, infuriating Dr. Tinibu. Lily, strangely, never calls out the photographer or explains things to the doctor. Then Dr. Tinibu punishes Lily by putting her on all night elephant care duty on a school night. I somehow doubt the zoo’s lawyers would allow a teenager to be alone with an elephant calf for hours, but again, Lily doesn’t object. Then, when the circus claims baby Swifty, Lily is sent down to Florida to accompany the calf. While she wants to help the baby, this is another punishment doled out by the doctor for something Lily didn’t actually do.

Meanwhile, Lily grows increasingly hostile to her father, whom she blames for not protecting her from her mother (at the tense roof standoff, he dove for her mother, while a police officer saved Lily). Her friend, Cushing, has been kicked out of the house by his father for his sexual orientation. Cushing, who has stood unflaggingly beside Lily during her darkest times, accuses her of not being there in his time of need, and stops talking to her.

Finally, there were a lot of instances of men getting a little too handsy with Lily. Not overly sexually, but grabbing her by the shoulders, touching her knee, etc. Adult men. I would have really liked it if she’d taken them to task for that.

Testosterone Estrogen Level: High

At the circus, Lily meets the two young sons of the owners: kindly but sullen Otis and angry and conniving Howard (this sounds like something out of a Lemony Snickett novel). While the circus seems like a nice place, with the usual cast of roadies, performers, clowns, and handlers, there’s something sinister going on beneath the surface. Can she allow Swifty to find a new home here, or does she team up with Otis and risk everything to help the calf?

Speaking of which, Lily is determined not to get entangled with any boys until she’s sure of her sanity (which is why Cushing is such a natural BBF). But young Otis, with his tragic past, love for animals, and well-defined torso, make Lily’s voluntary celibacy rather hard to cling to.

Finally, Lily will occasionally hear faint whispers while she’s alone. Just the products of stress and an overtaxed imagination. Nothing darker, right? Right?

Talky Talk: Tense

This was a high stress book with a lot of car chases, stampeding animals, devious business people and disembodied voices. I really cared about the characters, including the damn elephant, and it was fast paced enough that I just had to read one more chapter to see if everyone was safe.

The book was guilty of Hardy Boys Syndrome, however, where teen characters have unlimited time, money, and privileges. Sure, Lily can miss a week of school at a time when she’s desperate to impress scholarship committees. Yes, she can be the lead reporter on a story that’s been picked up by the AP (Lily, an aspiring reporter, didn’t even know what the AP was at first). Yes, she can spend the night in an elephant cage or drive a truck or flirt with a guy in his twenties with no regrets. Cushing is kicked out of the house? Well, he’s rich so he can just go rent an apartment.

Also, this book has an odd relationship with the press. The newspaper struggles over the legal ramifications of printing photos of elephant abuse that Lily took without permission. But when Lily runs afoul of the law, TV stations have no problem speculating about her mental health, including an interview with a police officer who says that she’s crazy, just like her mother. Nope.

Bonus Factor: Schizophrenia

Silhouette of a woman sitting sadly on the floor in front of a balcony

Lily obviously has a deep interest in the symptoms and treatments of schizophrenia. She follows a lot of schizophrenic bloggers, authors, and authorities. Some people’s symptoms vanish with a little medication or time. Others learn to deal with the disorders. Still others are institutionalized, having a full break with reality. There is no one type of schizophrenia, nor is there only one treatment. And it runs in Lily’s family. She discovers a letter from her grandparents stating, among other things, that her mother was not the first to be afflicted. Could Lily be next? And would she even realize it?

Bromance Status: Member of the Pack

While I didn’t bond with this book, I am happy to connect with it on a tribal YA level.

Literary Matchmaking

Words on Bathroom Walls

For a first hand account of a teen with full-blown schizophrenia, read Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls.

The Elephant of Surprise (Russel Middlebrook #4)

Brent Hartinger’s The Elephant of Suprise is about elephants in theme, if not plot.

Lily and Dunkin

In Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin, we have a boy worried about hereditary mental illness (and a girl named Lily).

FTC Full Disclosure: I received neither money nor circus peanuts for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.