Thursday, December 08, 2011

Small As An Elephant Another Poignant Portrait of Parental Mental Illness

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Of all the crazy ideas his mother's had during her "spinning" times, 11-year-old Jack Martel likes this one best of all. Not only does he get to spend the last weekend before school starts camping in Acadia National Park with his mom, but he also gets to take an elephant ride at the famous York's Wild Kingdom on the way home to Boston. For a pachiderm-lover like Jack, it sounds like the perfect vacation. And it is. Until the second day, when Jack crawls out of his tent to find his mother gone, along with the small tent she was sleeping in and the rental car they drove to Maine. Any other kid would freak. Not Jack. He's not like other kids. And his mom? She's definitely not like other moms.

Jack's spent plenty of time fending for himself, but usually he waits out his mother's manic phases in the safety of their Jamaica Plain apartment. This time, he's in a whole different state, miles and miles from home. He knows he should call the police; he also knows what will happen if he does. Despite his mother's ping-ponging moods, Jack doesn't want to be taken away from her. If he doesn't want to end up living with his gradma, Jack has to find his mom before anyone realizes she's abandoned him. No problem - he just has to search the entire state of Maine for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed crazy woman.

As Jack traces the sightseeing route he and his mom planned to take, with only a small, plastic elephant for company, he has to battle loneliness, hunger, thirst and fatigue. Not to mention fear. Surviving on his own is tougher than he ever imagined it could be, especially with the whole state of Maine on the lookout for a missing boy. Determined to complete his quest, Jack keeps moving, all the while asking himself some tough questions: How can his mom say she loves him when she keeps disappearing like this? Does it take more than just love to make a good parent? And what does it mean to be a good son? Should he protect his mother? Or get her the help she needs, even if it means he never gets to live with her again? As he examines his own heart and conscience, Jack will learn some big lessons - about family, about fear and about facing the truth, no matter how heartbreaking.

While not as heavy-hitting as other novels on this subject, Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, offers another poignant portrait of what it means to be a child dealing with a parent's mental illness. Although the story definitely deals with an emotional hardship, Jack's physical struggle for survival will make the book especially interesting to younger readers. I didn't find it mind-blowing or anything, but I enjoyed this middle grade novel about a resillient young boy's journey to find his mother and, ultimately, himself.

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Small As An Elephant from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

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