Small as an Elephant, by Jennifer Jacobson, is one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching middle grade novels I’ve ever read.
Jack’s mom is gone again. This time, she has left 11-year-old Jack alone on a campsite in Maine. When he wakes up, there is no sign of his mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder — no rental car, camping gear or food. Can he find his way back to Boston before the authorities realize what happened?
I’m honored to have Jennifer here today to chat about her gripping novel. Thank you!
Q: Ever since Jack can remember, his mom has been unpredictable, sometimes loving and fun, other times caught in a whirlwind of “spinning” wildly until it’s over. You describe his mother’s manic periods so vividly. What inspired you to tell this story?
Jennifer: Ten years ago I was at a writer’s conference and the teacher (Virginia Euwer Wolff, author of Make Lemonade) suggested, as an exercise, that we try writing an irresistible beginning – one that no reader could put down. I had a rush of an idea: What if a boy, on a camping trip, crawled out of his pup tent and discovered that his mother, her car, and the camping equipment were gone? I shared this beginning with the other writers and then let it go. Or tried to let it go… But it wouldn’t let go of me. Who was the boy? Why was he abandoned? I had to write the book.
Now I know, of course, that ideas are not as random as they might seem. Jack’s story allowed me to explore feelings of abandonment and the difficulties of coping with a family member who has a mental illness from a safe distance.
Q: Jack is used to his mother’s manic behavior, so he quickly goes into survival mode, figuring out ways to get food and coming up with plans to get home before DSS catches on. What kind of research did you do to write this story?
Jennifer: Google Maps helped me outline the plot. I was able to see how far Jack would get each day, and what he would find when he got there. Once I knew what he’d find, I could imagine what he’d eat, where he’d sleep. However, my first draft lacked rich setting. So I visited each place to gather details, details that create a much denser, cinematic experience. I made endless lists and then returned home to weave specifics into the story.
I also read many books on bipolar disorder and elephants. People often ask why Jack is obsessed with elephants and not another animal. I chose elephants because they are so maternal. They almost never leave their young — even when threatened. I wanted that juxtaposition.
Q: You write, “Jack wished he could be that boy, a kid who had nothing more to worry about than where his Frisbee landed.” You really capture the feeling of abandonment. How does abandonment haunt you?
Jennifer: I believe fear of abandonment is universal, one that taps into every child’s unspoken fears. When working with kids, I ask: “Have you ever turned around in a store and failed to see your parent?” or “Did a parent fail to pick you up from an event at the designated time?” Not only does everyone nod, but you can see the recollection of genuine fright on their faces.
Having said that, I no doubt brought my own memories (however real or imagined) of abandonment to my writing. My grandmother was schizophrenic (though at the time all mental illness was diagnosed as schizophrenia. I believe that she’d be diagnosed as bipolar now). Due to this, my mother grew up in a very chaotic home. Like Jack, she had to take control way too early, and she hid many parts of her life from others.
Here’s the thing about mental illness: it doesn’t just affect those living with it directly. It’s generational. It influenced my mother’s parenting style, and it influences mine. My mother used to describe her parenting style as “educated neglect.” I no doubt err too far on the other side. I am more like a mother elephant.
Q: You were a single mom for six years?
Jennifer: I left my marriage after 24 years. It was the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I’d been the one fiercely protecting my two children and now I was the one breaking their hearts.
I’m remarried to a man who also has two kids. All four are grown and they are amazing, loving, productive adults. There are so many stigmas about divorce that we (as a society) allow. My daughter and I were listening to someone talk of a child (whose parents were divorced) as if the child had been inflicted with a terrible curse. My daughter leaned over and said, “Divorced families are happy families, too.”
Q: You’re the author of 14 books, with one forthcoming. Tell us about your next book!
Jennifer: My newest book, titled Paper Things will be out in February. It’s another middle grade novel — aimed at the same readership as Small as an Elephant. In this story, 11-year old Ari and her older brother Gage are in foster care. Gage ages out and takes his little sister with him. (Do you notice a similarity in themes?)
Jennifer is giving away a copy of Small as an Elephant (Candlewick) to one lucky reader.
Leave a comment below by August 29. U.S. residents only, please. Winner to be chosen by Random.org.
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