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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Review: Small As An Elephant

Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Candlewick. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by William Dufris. Reviewed from audio from Brilliance.

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.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Oh, wow. This sounds … heartbreaking, yet fabulous, in that sort of excellent MG way, wherein you read the book, and the kids talk about it with you for days.

  2. I loved this book too, Liz! I’m a sucker for books about kids surviving on their own and I, too, was rooting for Jack all the way (even though I knew he needed an adult in his life). Also enjoyed the Maine details (I spend time there every summer) like Cool as a Moose.

  3. tanita, it is fabulous!

    Joanne, I have never been to Maine and I loved the details about Maine. The author’s website has some more info on the real geography of the story:

  4. Liz, I’m so glad that you reviewed this book. I finished it last week and loved it. It was so real. You felt his fear, panic, hurt, hunger. I was with him every step of the way. One thing you forgot to mention was the elephants! This will go over big with any kid that also loves elephants. I enjoyed the elephant facts at the beginning of each chapter and throughout the book. Elephants. Kid in peril. Great stuff.

    Other books that readers who liked this one may enjoy. One recent and one an oldy but goody. I consider these kids facing real life perils are the true heroes more so than the ones in a fantasy book with a special ability or magic.

    1) Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker – just finished this one and enjoyed it. It seemed a little lighter in tone (or younger) than Small as an Elephant but was a very good book and realistic portrayal of the young girls.

    2) Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt – Dicey is one of my all time favorite fictional character. I can’t begin to express how much I love her and her love for her siblings and gumption and determination to keep them together and safe.

    Gold adoption award to all these kids.

  5. One more thing – fantastic cover. Kudos to the Candlewick design team for this one.

  6. Eliza, yes, yes, yes. I should have said more about the elephants! I have gypsy moths, I’ll move it up my TBR pile. And what Dicey does in Homecoming…it’s such a terrific book.

  7. I think you’ll like Gypsy Moths though Stella’s mom makes Jack’s look good. Can’t wait to read your thoughts on it.

  8. Riley Hobson says:

    If you have not read this book you have to it is the best I enjoyed doing homework on it.