The Plot: Jack Martel, 11, wakes up on his first day of vacation, hot and worried that he’s overslept. He struggles out of his tent, looks around the camp site and sees — nothing. His mother’s tent is gone; his mother’s car is gone.
His mother is gone.
Jack believes his mother will be back soon. He goes about his day, finds something to eat, plays with some other kids staying at Acadia National Park. But then it’s the next day… and the next day… and Jack realizes his mother isn’t coming back, school is about to start, he has no way to get home to Jamaica Plain and if anyone realizes that his mother is gone, there will be big, big trouble. It’s up to Jack to figure out what to do next.
The Good: Jack breaks my heart.
Jack loves his mother. She loves Jack; she is fun, inventive, energetic, kind. Sometimes, though, she gets caught up in what Jack calls “spinning.” It’s not the first time she’s left for a couple of days, but before at least he was home, in his apartment, by friendly neighbors. Now he has $14 and not much more than the clothes on his back. And, Jack loves his mother. Another kid would go to the police, tell a grown up, call a grandparent. Not Jack. He is afraid that once he does that, people who don’t understand his mother will get involved and split them up. Jack is afraid of losing her forever and tries to keep it together until she returns.
Jack breaks my heart; at eleven, he is just old enough to take care of himself, or rather, to try to take care of himself. Just old enough to know that if lets any adult know, they will decide he shouldn’t stay with his mother, take him away, maybe lock her up. Jack is also young, just young enough to believe that he can get away with hiding from the attention of adults, that he can somehow make it from Maine to Massachusetts on his own. Young enough that he makes mistakes, like leaving his cell phone in his shorts pocket before going into the water.
I rooted for Jack, and I didn’t want him to be caught even though I knew at some point his journey had to end. As time passed and his mother didn’t return, I knew that what Jack wanted as his happy ending could not happen. As an adult reading this book, I also knew what Jack took the entire book to realize: his mother needed help. Also, as an adult reading the book? I was less kind than Jack, in that I wanted to take his mother and yell at her for leaving her child.
But for the age group for this book? For tweens? They will be making both the emotional and physical journey that Jack makes. They may have an adult in their lives like Jack’s mother, they may not, but they will understand the love and bond between the two.
What readers will also like? That Small as an Elephant grants the deepest wish and fear — of being left alone, of not having a grown up telling you what to do, of being able to take care of oneself. They’ll be impressed with some of Jack’s survival tricks, and may think of things they would do differently.