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What is it like to be the child of a parent secretly suffering from mental illness? In So B. It, a novel I reviewed earlier this year, mama’s mental illness is obvious, and Heidi gets by with help from kind strangers. But in Small as an Elephant, Jack’s mother is charismatic and unpredictable, looking to outsiders like a mysterious but perfectly capable mother – hiding her bipolar disorder and it's dramatic effect on her son’s life. In the middle of a vacation, Jack wakes up to find his mother gone along with all of their luggage and money. No note, no voicemails, nothing. Determined not to get her in trouble by contacting the police, Jack attempts to live using just the contents of his backpack and anything he can steal or borrow until he can track her down. As he travels, sleeping in stores, stealing candy, and avoiding police, Jack tries to understand whether what's happening is his fault – and what his future will hold, whether he finds his mother or not. Despite its dark subject matter, Small Like an Elephant is a favorite of my fifth graders and an enjoyable read. Thoughtful readers will be left with earnest questions about parenthood, mental disability, and how to determine blame in a situation where everyone is trying their best. A great story to start a discussion about empathy, perspective, and the stigma of mental health and asking for help.
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