Student Questions about Small as an Elephant

Are you interested in learning more about me or my books? Here are frequently asked questions (and comments) by readers of Small as an Elephant.

Anika wrote: I thought [Small as an Elephant] was fantastic. How did you think of writing about a kid whose mother left him?

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. 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.

Emma wrote: I love the title of the book.

Thanks!  I almost never come up with a title at the beginning of the writing that “sticks,” but this one did.  Many students have asked what the title means.  In my mind, Jack had an elephant-sized problem, but felt very small and helpless much of the time.

Cam wrote: I though it was cool how you put yourself in Jack’s shoes. I’ve had something like that happen before so I know how he feels.

I’m so glad you could relate to Jack.  The fear of abandonment (being left alone) is often called “a universal fear” meaning that most of us (whether you’ve gotten lost in a grocery store, or a parent didn’t pick you up when expected) have experienced this awful feeling.

Ilianna wrote: I have to say that [Small as an Elephant] was one of the best books I have ever read. It was so detailed and interesting.

Thanks, Ilianna, but I don’t think you would have said the same thing about my first draft!

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 had written all over the manuscript: more setting!, I packed my bag and took Jack’s journey. I sat in each and every place that Jack visited and wrote down lists of details I could observe. (I hadn’t known when writing my first draft that 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 in Searsport – a safe which Jack, in the second draft, became trapped inside.)

Ashley wrote: Another reason I loved [Small as an Elephant] is that you gave me theater in the mind, so I could picture it.

I often say “it’s the job of the writer to create a movie in the mind of a reader.”  I’ve started walking around Portland, Maine (the place where my new story is set) with a notebook in hand so I can make sure that I do a good job of including quality details (details that aren’t obvious or easily predicted).

Also, I’ve learned to “explode the moment” as Barry Lane (a writing teacher) would say.  That means that I don’t rush moments, I try to help the reader feel as if he or she is right there with the main character.

Moira wrote: I absolutely loved Small as an Elephant.  There were surprises around every corner.

There is a quote by the poet Robert Frost that I love: “If there are no surprises for the writer, there are no surprises for the reader,” and we all like surprises.  One of the moments that surprised me was when Jack met another Jack at Geddy’s.  I thought for sure that my editor would make me change Big Jack’s name, but she loved this coincidence, too.

Lily wrote: If I could give the book a rating this is what I would give it: ***** I can’t believe his mom left him.  It sounds unbearable to be running around with a broken pinky,

and

Emily wrote: The part I thought was sad was when he had to wait in the basement all alone.

Thanks, Lily and Emily.  In order to make a story suspenseful, an author needs to keep making things tougher and tougher for her characters.  But, we love our characters so much that this can often be hard to do.

Rohan: …though it took me awhile to realize what you meant by “spinning.” I would have like an appearance by Jack’s mom.

I know what you mean, Rohan.  It’s hard not to have that loose thread tied up. I often think of Jack’s mom and what their reunion would be like.  I do think it would be very forgiving. However, in order for fiction to feel “real,” an author has to write as truthfully as possible, and I don’t think Jack’s mom would have returned in the week or so that Jack went missing.

Also, in order for Jack to go on being happy, he needs time to get to know his grandmother on his own.  Then, if times get tough again, he’ll have more than one loving, caring person in his life.

Paris wrote: Also, your book made me think of trust. It made me also think of peace.

Wow!  I suppose you could say that these are two of the themes in the book.  One thing I wanted to convey is: Most people are not all good nor all bad. We tend to be varying shades of gray – depending upon the circumstances.

Mustafa wrote: I was connected with Jack because I really like elephants – even the ones in Asia. Who inspired you?

An elephant who lived over one thousand years ago!  You might remember the story (mentioned in Small) that Pliny the elder told. He had observed that an elephant, punished for her inability to perform a trick, went missing.  She was found later that night, practicing.   As a writer, I related to the elephant’s need to try until she got things right.  I also think that Jack is just like her.

Matt wrote: It was a good idea to make the grandma sound like the bad guy. Grandmas are usually soft and cuddly.  But where did you get the idea to make Jack obsessed with elephants?

I was growing more interested in elephants myself and decided I wanted to write about them.  Also, elephants are wonderful mothers and I thought it would be interesting to have the contrast between an elephants caring for her baby, and Jack’s mom. You may have noticed that Jack’s obsession with elephants gave me another way to talk indirectly about his thoughts and feelings.

David wrote: I really liked the facts you put in the beginning of each chapter.  What was your source for the facts?

I read many books about elephants and searched the Internet.  If I found a fact on the Internet, I tried to find it written in at least two other places (to make sure it was true).  One of my favorite books was When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Brylee wrote: Do you like elephants?  I never was crazy about elephants before, but after I read your book I became very interested in them.  It is so sad that they are using elephant tusks for ivory.  I’m going to try to help them.

Great idea, Brylee! Here are some sites you might explore to learn how:

http://www.savetheelephants.org/home.html

http://www.wcs.org/saving-wildlife/elephants.aspx?gclid=CL60t6Xm960CFYPc4AodDX3Ssw

http://www.elephantnaturefoundation.org/

Nolan wrote: You have inspired me to start writing my own story. I like how Jack was a risk-taker a lot.

Believe it or not, Nolan, risk-taking helps in writing, too.  A writer takes a risk every time he tells a story or plays with language in a new way, or shares a deep (and sometimes scary-to-reveal) truth. 

Adults often ask why I wrote about a mother who has a mental illness. I tell them that kids have to deal with all kinds of very difficult problems, and that I don’t want to shy away from telling these stories.  For me, it’s a risk worth taking.

McKenzie wrote: …I gave the man $5 and got on [the elephant]. At first I was scared, but then she reached up her trunk and blew in my face . . . when I left she blew in my face again. One of the facts in your book said that if you blow in an elephant’s trunk, it will always remember you. I think it wanted me to remember it!

and

Kendrick wrote: When I read Jack was running to see the elephant that was like when I was in the Philippines and I was running all over the place to see the Bengal tiger, then I finally saw it really up close!

Great connections, McKenzie and Kendrick! Perhaps you will use these memories in your own stories.  Even though my stories are fiction, I recall similar events in my own life and then give the emotions to my characters.  For example, when I was in elementary school, I hid on a school bus to go on a different route than my own.  (I recalled what it felt like when I had Jack hide in the back of a truck.)

Rylee wrote: I used to want to become an author. I hope you write back and give me advice.

My very best advice is to read, read, read.  It’s amazing what your brain will learn about good writing.

Lynneross wrote: I’ve always tried to make a realistic fiction story, but I never get the story, or, I forget something.

I know your frustration! No author gets it right the first time.  That’s why we revise and revise and revise.  It took me about eight drafts before Small as an Elephant was published.

Dillion wrote: I love books a lot. Do you?

I adore them.  My favorite children’s book is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. (By the way, E.B white wrote eight drafts of this book, too!)

Ja’Naisa wrote: The book really reminds me of me.

I’m so glad.  I love that books can help us to realize that we’re not alone — that others share the same interests and problems.  And most books offer some inspiration . . . or at least very helpful ways of looking at things.

Dan wrote: I never read such an adventure before in my life!

Your comment makes me very happy!  If you liked this book you may also enjoy Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Don Fendler or Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

Molly wrote: Can you tell me more names of books you wrote? I am sure that they would be as good as Small as an Elephant.

And

Karli wrote: Do you write kids books because I have a little sister and think she would love your books.

I have written two series.  The first book in a six-book series is Andy Shane and the Very Bossy Dolores Starbuckle.  (Each book has four short chapters.)  The first book in a three-book series is Winnie Dancing On Her Own (these books have about 13 chapters in each).

Maureen wrote: Do you write other books at a fifth grade level?

And

Hayden wrote: I hope you make more books like [Small as an Elephant], because if you do I would like to read them.

Some fifth graders enjoy my Winnie books.  However, the book I’m working on now (called Paper Things) will be perfect for fifth graders.  Unfortunately, you will probably be in seventh grade when it comes out.  (However, I bet you will still like it in seventh grade.)

Payton wrote: I didn’t want to be sick so I didn’t have to stop the book for one day!

This is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

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