Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review & Giveway: Small as an Elephant

This post is cross posted on the Nerdy Book Club Blog today!

Publisher: Candlewick Press, March 2011

Awards and Recognitions:

From the publisher: Ever since Jack can remember, his mom has been unpredictable, sometimes loving and fun, other times caught in a whirlwind of energy and "spinning" wildly until it’s over. But Jack never thought his mom would take off during the night and leave him at a campground in Acadia National Park, with no way to reach her and barely enough money for food. Any other kid would report his mom gone, but Jack knows by now that he needs to figure things out for himself - starting with how to get from the backwoods of Maine to his home in Boston before DSS catches on. With nothing but a small toy elephant to keep him company, Jack begins the long journey south, a journey that will test his wits and his loyalties - and his trust that he may be part of a larger herd after all.

A fear of abandonment is one we have all experienced at some point in our lives. I’m sure we all have a story of the time we got separated from mom in the store, or dad forgot to pick us up after baseball practice. Being left or forgotten is a common childhood fear that middle grade readers can identify with rather quickly. But what if that “fear” became your reality? In Small as an Elephant Maine author Jennifer Jacobson tackles this real fear in a story that is filled with adventure and survival, not in the wilderness, but rather right in middle of the busy tourist area of down east Maine.  As Jack makes difficult decisions and deals with the emotions of having a mom who’s unreliable, Jacobson intentionally puts the reader inside Jack’s head, which helps the reader understand why Jack makes certain decisions even if they aren’t what most kids would do.  Written in a way that hooks readers from page one, Jack’s story is both riveting and touching, the characters are interesting and realistic, and the pace fast moving. 
I had the opportunity to talk with Jennifer about Small as an Elephant in more depth when she visited our school as our Author in Residence this year.   Which, as a side note, if you ever have the opportunity to bring an author to your school, do it!  It’s a powerful experience that really strengthens a reading community! 

Jack’s story is one that hit close to home for several of my students. One in particular shared at the end of our reading it aloud “You know, this is first time I’ve ever seen myself in a book.” How did you come up with the idea of Jack’s story?
Ten years ago I was at a writer’s conference and the instructor (Virginia Euwer Wolff of Make Lemonade fame) suggested, as an exercise, that we try writing an irresistible beginning. 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 family (I did not yet know who he was camping with) and the camping equipment were gone?  I shared this beginning with the other writers, received an enthusiastic response, 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.

As my class was sharing this story, we kept coming back to the question of why you made the choice to have Jack be so enamored with elephants?

For years I had a brief story about a story tacked on my bulletin board.  You might remember the story (mentioned in Small) that Pliny the elder told. He had observed that an elephant, beaten for her inability to perform a trick, went missing.  She was found later that night, back in the arena, practicing.   As a writer, I related to the elephant’s need to try until she got things right.  I also think that my character, Jack ,is a lot like the elephant in the story.  But perhaps most importantly, I chose elephants (as opposed to other animals or obsessions) because they are so maternal.  Even when at risk, a female elephant will not leave her young.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

While writing the first draft, I used Google maps to determine how far Jack could get in a day and, with satellite, exactly what he would see along each road.  I also read a good deal about bipolar disorder and elephants.  I visited York Wild Kingdom, met Lydia the elephant, and talked to her trainers.

The Maine setting is so important to the plot and you’ve describe it so well. Have you visited all of the places Jack visits?

Yes!  After completing a first draft, I went back with my camera and notebook and recorded details in each stopping point on Jack’s journey. I wanted to stay true to the actual locations, so this required revision (I had to remove a swimming scene for example, because the rocky beach was too rough for swimming), and it also gave me ideas for new scenes (there really is a vault in the center of Left Bank Books!). 
But perhaps most importantly, this journey transformed my writing.  I used to believe that it was the strength of a writer’s imagination that made a story come alive.  I now understand that observation is an equally powerful and perhaps even necessary tool.  Currently I carry a notebook with me, recording interesting details as I go about my daily life...

What is the strongest message you hope readers take away from reading Small as an Elephant?

I never write with a message in mind,  but now that the book is written, I hope readers come away with a reminder that the world (and especially relationships) are not black and white. A person can be wonderful in a myriad of ways and yet, under certain circumstances, do something deeply regrettable.  I also hope that children who are dealing with difficult issues realize that, like Jack, they are not alone.

How did you first become interested in writing children’s books?

I was training to be a teacher, taking a children’s literature course, when I fell back in love with books for children.  It was then that I decided I wanted to write them.  When I was teaching, I wrote with my students during Writer’s Workshop.  I’d share my writing, and revise according to my students’ feedback.

I’ve heard many authors say that to be a great writer you have to be a reader. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
Absolutely!  The more you read, the more your understanding of story structure (or expository writing) grows. Your vocabulary and sentence fluency grows. Eventually you begin to read like a writer asking yourself: How did the author do that?  How did the author create suspense, or use symbolism, or make me cry?

How or when did you become a member of the Nerdy Book Club?

I have always been a reader, but when I was around eight years old, I found a book of short stories for children in our attic.  After each story was a list of comprehension questions.  I spent an entire Saturday reading the stories and then answering the questions in this little hardcover book.  I suppose one doesn’t get much nerdier than that!

Small as an Elephant makes a fantastic read aloud as it has so many wonderful discussion points. If you working with students, you can also visit Jennifer’s website where students are encouraged to imagine what Jack would have done if he had passed through their town, and to write their own Jack adventures.  All stories are published on the site.  There's also a map, and if kids click on the icons, they can see the actual Maine locations in from the book and learn more facts about each location.

As a fellow Mainer, I couldn’t be more proud of the story Jennifer has written. She truly captured not only the beautiful Maine setting of the Bar Harbor area, but more importantly the sense of “community” that is Maine where the idea of “paying it forward” is just the way life is.  In that spirit, I’m thrilled to be giving away a signed, hardcover copy of Jennifer’s book to one of my fellow Nerdy Book Club members.
For a chance to win visit the Nerdy Book Club Blog and fill out the giveaway form!
Good luck....and Happy Reading!