small as an elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

The offspring and I will head to the library this afternoon, an activity we have been neglecting of late.  As it is due today, I have just finished small as an elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, a small-people chapter book I picked up just because the cover was so charming.  I mean, look:

That is some cute elephant right there.  And the font and the minimalism?  Yup.  My alley and this book cover are smack on top of each other.

This book is fairly new, released in March 2011 from Candlewick Press, who also publishes some of my favorite small-people authors (Hello, Kate DiCamillo!) and books (Bag in the Wind = beautiful).  Beyond having a lovely cover, this book is a truly solid story with strong writing and characterization behind it.  small as an elephant tells the story of Jack, an 11-year-old boy who is camping with his mom in Acadia National Park when everything goes wrong.  At first, the reader is shocked to realize that Jack's mom has just left him in the night.  LEFT.  HIM.  As a mom, I had a hard time accepting this reality, but I suspected something else was up.  And indeed it was.

Told thoughtfully through the thoroughly believable voice of Jack, this story reveals what Jack knows about his mom, her "spinning" times, and the difficulties of their life together.  This incident, although it launches something bigger than previously experienced, is not entirely out of the ordinary for Jack, which makes him an entirely out of the ordinary kind of boy. His interest in elephants extends this other-ordinariness, but not in a disturbing way.  Let's just say I've known a few kids with obsessions, and this one is mild, comforting even, an appropriate touchstone for Jack and the reader to return to throughout the difficult journey this book takes.  I especially like the brief elephant facts and anecdotes at the opening of each chapter.  Did you know this?
During World War II, authorities in Tokyo worried that the zoo would be bombed and the escaped animals would be dangerous.  By order, all animals were to be poisoned, but the elephants refused to eat their poisoned food.
It leaves me wondering what they did as a result, which is a bit depressing, but there are other, more heart-warming or engaging anecdotes as well.  Jack even mentions the TN Elephant Sanctuary, which is just a couple of hours from here, and the dog/elephant relationship that became so famous on the interwebz a few years ago.  A quick search for that original video revealed the unfortunate news that Bella (the dog) died recently.

Though this turn of events is sad (at least for animal lovers like myself), it is uncannily appropriate to this book, which deals with loss and renewal and the importance of support from the "herd."  The ending was a bit tidy, but it worked for me despite some small incredulity.  I don't think a young reader would be so cynical, so it is an appropriate ending.  However, that issue of audience does draw me to my one major question mark about this book.  Although I don't often shrink from discussing difficult issues with my kids or approve of the "censorship" of challenging material, I wonder if the average 8-11 year old would fully understand this book.  To see Jack's mom as merely "sick" might work, but without a better, more adult understanding of bipolar disorder, the young reader might just be left wondering what kind of sickness would make a mom leave her son at a campsite.  Just a suspicion on my part, which may not affect the young reader at all.  "Sick" might be enough of an explanation at that age.

In other news, I am placing book orders for the Spring semester and have mostly everything in place.  However, I am seeking suggestions for a novel by an American writer published AND SET in America sometime after 2001.  Ideally, said book would be by a woman and would handle such themes as family, education, race, consumerism, place, identity, diversity, sexuality, and/or freedom.

So there's that.  Holla if you gots some ideas.

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