Camping out with his mother over Labor Day weekend in Maine’s Acadia National Park is supposed to be the best three days of 11-year-old Jack Martel’s summer vacation. But when he awakes after their first night and discovers that his presumably bipolar mother has driven off and disappeared, Jack deduces that she must be “spinning.” Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s nuanced and heart-wrenching middle grade novel, Small as an Elephant, gives a quiet force to one resilient boy and his mentally ill mother.
Afraid that Social Services will take him away from his dysfunctional home (but his home nonetheless), his mother will go to jail, he’ll have to change schools and a host of other worries, Jack begins a 248-mile walk home to Massachusetts. Finding strength in his obsession with elephants, based on one of his first and strongest memories with his mother, he figures out how to forage for food, spend the night after hours at an LL Bean store and evade police when he learns that he’s the “Missing Boy” on the news. Hoping to make his long trek meaningful, Jack changes course, detouring to York’s Wild Kingdom to see Lydia, Maine’s only elephant.
Jack’s endless repertoire of elephant facts and stories, as well as the elephant information and quotes that begin each chapter, show that elephants and humans share many qualities. Both want to be accepted and loved. With a makeshift herd that helps him throughout his journey—supplying food, transportation, friendship and encouragement when he needs it—Jack accepts the truth about his mother and finds forgiveness and a new sense of home. Perhaps, like the elephants, it takes a herd to raise a child.