During what is supposed to be a relaxing vacation weekend, Jack wakes to find himself abandoned by his mentally ill mother, and he gradually begins questioning the reality he had until that moment. Jennifer Richard Jacobson confesses how a writer’s research can lead to wooden lobsters and why we could all use a little grandmotherly wisdom.
READ MORE ABOUT CHILDREN FORCED TO MAKE IT ON THEIR OWN.
What prompted the need to create a story surrounding such delicate issues as parental abandonment and mental illness?
Ten years ago I was at a writer’s conference and the facilitator suggested, as an exercise, we write an irresistible beginning. It was then that 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 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? What would I do if I were abandoned? With some additional prewriting, I determined that Jack’s mother wasn’t well. I also came to know that he loved her deeply and wished to protect her.
I didn’t set out to write a book about difficult issues, but I didn’t shy away from them either. I work regularly with children who write about very complex relationships, and I want my stories to be equally honest.
In tracking Jack’s journey along the Maine coast as part of your process, what was the most surprising find?
That observation can be a powerful writing tool. This sounds so basic, but I truly believed that it was the job of the writer to create full and rich worlds from one’s imagination. I wrote the first draft of Small as an Elephant from an armchair using Google maps to plot Jack’s journey. After the draft was accepted and my editor, Kaylan Adair, had written all over the manuscript—“more setting”—I packed my bag and took Jack’s journey.
I wrote in each and every place that Jack visited and discovered the joy of working with the fun and quirky stuff that exists all around us. I didn’t know there is a wooden lobster whose lap you may sit upon outside of Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, nor did I realize that there’s a vault in the center of Left Bank Books (formerly a bank) in Searsport—a safe that Jack now becomes trapped inside.
Why not Small as a Jungle Cat, or Rhinoceros…or Hippopotamus?
Elephants are extremely maternal. Elephants won’t leave their young behind.
What is your most memorable encounter with an elephant?
I had a beloved grandmother whose inner life seemed incongruent with her day-to-day living. She would tell me, while busy preparing potatoes or some other task, “You know, I rode an elephant once.” This became a powerful metaphor in my own life.
Nevertheless, my own most memorable encounter happened when reading a book. I scribbled down this note and pinned it to my bulletin board: “Pliny the elder observed that an elephant, punished for her inability to perform a trick, went missing. She was found later that night, practicing.” It pulled at my heart. I suppose I related to the elephant’s need to try until she got things right.
Dumbo or Babar?
Oh, I know I should say the literary Babar instead of Disney’s Dumbo. But it’s Dumbo for me. Who wouldn’t want to fly?
Small as an Elephant
Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Candlewick / March 8, 2011 / 9780763641559 / $15.99 / ages 10-14