When Elephants Fly – Nancy Richardson Fischer – Harlequin Teen – Published 4 September 2018




T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she’s not developing schizophrenia.Genetics are not on Lily’s side.

When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily’s odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there’s a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.

But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can’t abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf’s life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way.

My thoughts

An incredible story of survival and finding something to believe in and fight for, When Elephants Fly will have you laughing, crying buckets and wildly cheering for Lily and her battle to save elephant calf, Swifty.

Lily is working off a tight plan to control the likelihood of her developing schizophrenia. The genetic odds are not in her favour but by living carefully she hopes to avoid following the same journey her mother took. But, when on assignment for her journalism internship, she witnesses an elephant reject her calf and Lily can’t help but see the parallels between their stories. Lily must decide if it is worth risking everything she has worked so hard to control to try and save the life of the elephant she is quickly coming to love.

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautifully written, beautiful message, beautiful characters (and yes, that includes elephant calf, Swifty). Alone, Lily’s story or Swifty’s story would be enough in themselves to be both moving and motivational, enough for any book. Yet together they become phenomenal. The compassion between humans and animals, the loss Swifty and Lily both share, and they ways in which they help each other is stunningly conceived and written.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t love elephants. The conservation and protection of elephants is a big part of this story. Thanks to the author’s research and personal experience, everything in this book is all too heartbreakingly real. It will hopefully spark movements like the one Lily starts in the book to raise awareness of animal treatment and the ways in which we can take action to protect these incredible creatures.

Mental health and Lily’s response to her story – past, present and not yet told, is a strong theme in this book. It is Lily’s story. The author, both in her notes and throughout the book, makes it clear that this is Lily’s journey and it will differ from anyone else’s, but Lily’s fear and reaction will be relatable to so many people. It is an important portrayal of mental health and shares a powerful (but never judgemental or one-size-fits-all) message.

Friendship is another key part of When Elephants Fly. Lily relies on her best friend Sawyer. He tests her for schizophrenia, protects her from being a total outcast at school, and is there for her through everything. But, it takes Lily a good part of the book to realise that Sawyer is not untouchable, as she thinks, and that he needs her support in return. Much like in the way Lily grows from someone who lives in fear and defence-mode to someone who is willing to risk everything for something she believes in, she shows such growth and development as she comes to realise how important Sawyer is to her and how she can be there for him in return.

My only complaint? That ending. Happy and sad, and oh my gosh I needed more details!!! Infuriatingly true to life where sometimes there are no clear answers, we readers are given possibilities not definitives, but I wanted more. Putting my teacher hat on, though, the ending presents the perfect opportunity for discussion of even a writing activity, letting students create an additional chapter or epilogue as they imagine the many ways in which Lily and Swifty’s story might continue.

When Elephants Fly is a beautiful and important YA novel – it is easy to recommend and I look forward to having it on our library’s shelves to place into the hands of many, many readers.

The publishers provided an advanced readers copy of this book for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.

More information

Category: Young adult fiction.

Genre: Contemporary.

Themes: Mental health, schizophrenia, elephants, animals, mother-daughter relationships, depression, animal conservation, zoos, circuses, friendship, romance, LGBT.

Reading age guide: Ages 12/13 and up.

Advisory: Coarse language, f*** (16), sh** (22), as***** (1), pi** (9), bit** (2). Sexual references, heavy making out and some nudity. Mature themes, suicide. References to and descriptions of animal cruelty, injury.

Published:  4 September 2018 by Harlequin Teen.

Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook. 400 pages.


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