Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It never forgets

Jack Martel and I share an interest in elephants. Jack, 11-year-old hero of Jennifer Richard Jacobson's Small as an Elephant, is hoping to see one named Lydia on his Labor Day weekend vacation with his mother to Maine. I plan on seeing them in the wild sometime before I kick the bucket. Jacobson has written a gentle novel about a boy fiercely protective of his mentally ill parent, who will test himself again and again as he attempts to save her and himself.

Jack wakes up in his tent on the first morning of his vacation in Acadia National Park. He crawls out and finds that his mother, her tent, and their rental car are missing. His mother has gone missing before; when she's in one of her manic phrases -- Jack calls it "spinning." He just needs to sit tight for a few hours ... she'll be back. Even though he only has $14, he knows he can't let any adult authorities know, because they'll make him move in with his grandmother who Jack thinks doesn't really like his mother or him.

But when his mother doesn't come back, Jack first decides to look for her and then to make his way from Maine to their apartment in Jamaica Plain near Boston. Hungry, thirsty, with no place to sleep, Jack hoists his backpack and makes his way south (Jacobson's website has a fun map showing Jack's journey). As an adult, I accompanied Jack on his painful trip (so much bad luck!) just frustrated that he wouldn't ask for help. But I think kids will really identify with Jack's stubborn independence and understand his feelings that he has no options. Such a kid-friendly book. Jacobson has also written a series for beginning readers about a boy named Andy Shane. Also really terrific.

The squeaky-voiced William Dufris reads the book. I've heard him read several children's books, plus one adult, and I like listening to him. He reads in a tense, excited manner that captures Jack's sense of panic as things quickly spiral out of his control. Every time something goes wrong for Jack (and they go wrong frequently), the frustration in Dufris' voice is palpable. When Jack reaches the end of his resources, there is a subdued calm and real sadness. He also creates a cast of natural sounding characters (he does "Maine" very well, aye yup). Like the story, it's a gentle narration, nothing flashy.

My love of elephants stems from a stuffed animal with many large polka dots that lived on my bed for years. It then morphed into a "figurine" collection until that got out of control (or people thought that I was a Republican!). Now, I content myself with informational books and try to quell a (mostly) unobtrusive anxiety that they aren't long for this world, species-wise. Speaking of informational books, check out Ann Downer's Elephant Talk: The Surprising Science of Elephant Communication. It's fascinating.

[The photograph of rocks in Acadia National Park was taken by Michael180 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Narrated by William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 5:05

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