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Monday, February 20, 2012

small as an elephant, written by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 12 and up

"That's what worry did to Jack, made him incredibly tired - tired the way his mom always was after the spinning times. She'd come home and crawl into bed, close the shades, and pull up the covers, and that's where Jack would find her for days - sometimes even weeks - after a spinning time. Tired like that."

Truthfully, I didn't think that I was going to be able to read this book. It begins with Jack who is 11, and his mother. They are in a campground in Maine; arriving late, setting up both tents and going quickly to sleep. Morning finds his Mom, her tent, her car gone. How could that happen? What kind of mother is she? What will he do? Jack is concerned but determined that he will find her. So, he sets off alone with little to sustain him and no real plan in mind.

As we travel the back roads and main streets with Jack, we come to realize that this has happened before, and Jack is wily at keeping secrets. He trusts no one, having learned that lesson well. In previous such episodes, Jack has learned to cover for his mother, thus avoiding being put in the foster care system or having to live with his mother's mother. Anyone he might trust he views with a skeptical eye and avoids spilling his doubts, fears and secrets to them.

No money, no way of contacting his mother, and virtually nothing but what he has on his back, what will he do? What he has always done...stick to himself and find a way to survive on his own. He has never been alone in the wide world before....he has always been at home, in their apartment with neighbors close by. It is a gripping adventure, and often uncomfortable for my mothering instincts. He breaks my heart; but, Jack is a fighter and does his best to take care of himself. He is such a mix of old soul, and young boy. His story is a mixed bag of wanting to be independent and make it on your own and being gripped by the fear of being left alone to fend for himself. You cannot help but cheer him on and hope that when the time comes to make the best decision, he will be able do it.

Through it all, Jack remains intrigued and obsessed by elephants...the reason for the argument that Jack and his mother have at the onset. Jack has loved elephants since a very early age and has spent endless hours learning as much as he can about them. He believes that if he can just see Lydia, a captive elephant who lives in a wild animal park in Maine, he will know the right thing to do. Each chapter begins with a fascinating quote or fact about elephants. My favorite begins chapter one:

"If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people, only more so.
                                                                                          - Peter Corneille"

Jack learns two life lessons during his journey. One is raw, one is life-altering.

First, he voices his own heartbreak:

"He was so ashamed.
Ashamed of it all, of everything that he had done.
But most of all, ashamed because...
Because she'd left him.
In between sobs, he thought it.
My mother...
My mother left me.

Then, he realizes:

"...he had never really been alone. He had been part of a makeshift herd, one that spread out for miles. They had communicated heart sounds that were sometimes so soft, they weren't always discernible to the ear. But they had found one another, and they had helped one another. Just like a true herd."

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