For almost 40 years, Queenie the elephant took people for rides around the Melbourne Zoo, sometimes as many as 500 people a day. She was amiable and known as the gentle Indian elephant. Sometimes children mercilessly teased her. She was much-loved by many. When a merry-go-round was acquired by the zoo, Queenie’s fans worried that she might be jealous and wrote hundreds of letters to say that they loved her. Queenie also took part in parades down the streets of Melbourne.
Queenie was especially fond of her keeper, Wilfred Parsons, but one day, she inexplicably crushed and killed her keeper. The coroner ruled Queenie at fault. Because it was wartime and fodder to feed Queenie was scare, it was determined that Queenie should be destroyed on 3 July 1945. The story ends as the author invites readers to remember Queenie’s spirit and to envision her playing in the jungles of India long, long ago. On the publication of this book, Corinne Fenton’s first of many picture books about animals, she received a letter from the granddaughter of Wilfred Lawson, the zoo keeper who was tragically killed by Queenie. She expressed her joy at the publication of this book, revealing that her family had never blamed Queenie for the death of Wilfred. It is an event still not fully understood. Zoos have changed since Queenie’s time, and this story raises questions about zoo philosophy and the treatment of its animal inhabitants.
Peter Gouldthrope’s artwork is realistic in keeping with this story which prods readers to consider the treatment of animals in zoos. Each illustration is set on a yellow-cream background that concentrates the viewer’s attention. Images are set within a variety of framing devices from ovals to rectangles and double page spreads. These focus the viewer on Queenie’s life, initially when she is captured in India, then aboard a steamship bound for Australia, and finally taken to the Melbourne Zoo. Empathy is aroused for animals taken from their own kind in their natural habitat. The illustrations echo the story and generate a sombre response. There is a final double page spread revealing elephants enjoying their lives in the jungles of India. Underlying there is a sense of sadness for the animals taken from their natural habitat.
‘Queenie: One Elephant’s Story’ was a CBCA Honour Book in the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, 2007