CLARA: The (Mostly) True Story of the Rhinocerous who Dazzled Kings, Inspired Artists, and Won the Hearts of Everyone... While She Ate Her Way Up and Down a Continent


above by Pietro Longhi of Clara

A Bank Street College Best Book of the Year

Publisher's Weekly:

"Nearly three hundred years ago, when half the world was still a mystery to the other half," a rhinoceros named Clara became the toast of Europe, thanks to her impresario, Captain Van der Meer. But this isn't the story of a ruthless entrepreneur and his exploited zoological curiosity. With elegant watercolor and ink drawings and flawless storytelling, McCully (Queen of the Diamond) immerses readers in an era of powdered white wigs ("hairdressers created the style á la rhinocéros") and tricorne hats while capturing a relationship that exemplifies absolute trust and unflagging devotion. Every day, Clara grows by 20 pounds and eats more than 100 pounds of food; moving her requires ever-bigger wagons, and, in one case, a custom-made raft. Yet this interspecies bond only deepens: Van der Meer dotes on his "Clarakin," and on page after page, Clara regards him with openhearted affection-she is his eager collaborator to the very end. McCully calls this a "mostly" true story, and perhaps by strict historical standards, that's correct. But its emotional veracity is never in question. Ages 48

Booklist, May 1 2016:

In 1741, Captain Van der Meer sailed to India and returned to Holland with a "mythical beast," an orphaned one-year-old rhinoceros named Clara. Van der Meer grew to love his new friend, who rewarded his kindness with affection and trust. He took her throughout Europe, where crowds and even royal heads of state came to see her. As she grew, the problem of raising money to feed her became more challenging, but Van der Meer persisted, and they traveled together for 17 years, until Clara's death. In this smoothly written, fictionalized tale based on historical facts, McCully shows what a marvel it was at that time before nature films, photography, and zoos for people to see a large, unfamiliar animal, though in an appended note, she mentions that today "we know that confining and exhibiting a wild animal is inhumane." Graceful, expressive, and beautifully composed, the ink-and-watercolor illustrations portray the young rhino as small, easygoing, and adorable, and the older Clara as large, gentle, and still adorable. Pair this handsome volume with the many history-based picture books, such as Dianne Hofmeyr's Zeraffa Giraffa (2014), telling of a giraffe that traveled from Egypt to France in 1826 and, like Clara, drew admiring crowds wherever she went. - Carolyn Phelan