What you need to know:
• A story of survival and self-discovery told from the perspective of an eleven year-old boy.
• A mother’s mental illness is subtly addressed but never fully explained.
• There is limited dialogue and the plot goes back and forth between the present and memories of the past.
• Each chapter begins with an interesting fact about elephants.
• Jennifer Richard Jacobson is also the author of the popular Andy Shane series.
• This story should appeal to both boys and girls.
Sweet Book Summary:
Jack had been looking forward to a special vacation with his mom, but on the first morning of their trip he wakes up in a Maine campground to find himself completely alone. His mom’s tent is gone, as is their car, and he has less than $20 in his pocket. Most kids would turn themselves in to the authorities, right? Not Jack. His mom has a history of this type of behavior and he figures that once the police find her, they’ll separate them and she’ll be lost to him forever. In order to avoid that fate, he takes off on his own, first attempting to find his mom and then searching for a way back to his home in Massachusetts. He is afraid to trust anyone because he assumes that everyone, including his own grandmother, would rather see him separated from his mom. Instead, he relies on himself, finding places to sleep like a barn and an L.L. Bean store, and securing food from anywhere he can, including a stranger’s garden and a garbage can.
Keeping him going through this ordeal is the security he finds in his favorite animal, the elephant. He saw one as a young boy and has found comfort in this creature ever since that time, always hoping to see another one in the flesh. As he begins his journey, he is so drawn to a tiny elephant toy he notices in a store, that he is compelled to steal it. After that, he faces several other ethical dilemmas as he contemplates whether there are circumstances that make it is acceptable to steal food, clothes or even a bike. As things become more desperate, he believes that seeing a real elephant will symbolize a fresh start and somehow make things better. Jack’s determination and ingenuity are admirable as he manages to figure out a plan, obtain supplies, and stay one step ahead of those on the lookout for him. He experiences numerous setbacks, but he refuses to give up and never loses hope that he will be reunited with his mom.
As Jack flashes back and forth between past and present, readers learn that his mom is volatile and has always had these episodes of irrational behavior that he refers to as “spinning.” Although her behavior is never identified by name, there is a reference to her being “manic” and avoiding her medication. As Jack’s emotional journey comes to an end, he acknowledges that it wasn’t his fault that his mom left and that she is always a part of him even when she isn’t physically with him. In a powerful moment, Jack also realizes that just as an elephant is part of a herd, so is he. It’s almost as if a curtain is lifted and he realizes that so many of those individuals he’d been running from, are actually trying to help him. Knowing that he has this network of people out there to look out for him and that he is no longer really alone, gives Jack the confidence to continue on with his own personal journey.
Readers will find many fascinating elephant facts and plenty of interesting details about life in the small towns of Maine. Some scenes are slightly scary as Jack maneuvers the world at night. While Jack’s precarious situation will keep readers interested – and apprehensive – there is limited dialogue, leaving readers to play out the action in their own heads. I think this book would make an excellent book group selection, inspiring conversations about family relationships, ethics, mental illness, trust, and independence.
Your child will learn to read books like Small as an Elephant with Reading Kingdom. Sign up today for a free 30 day trial.