Short & Tall: Stories About Height

For boys called “shrimp” by their classmates, for girls who tower over their friends (from the New York Times Book Review)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in the movie “Twins.”

Written especially for the vertically challenged, John Schwartz’s “Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All” identifies a well-known coping strategy among those of us who were half-pints. In a world of alpha dogs (bullies at skating rinks, high school girls making slighting comments) we became the smart alecks, the sidekicks, the class clowns. Later in life, Schwartz observes, the related verbal skills can wonderfully pave the way to a career in, say, the upper echelons of journalism: Schwartz is the national legal correspondent for The New York Times. Given that logic, you may wonder whether that newspaper is prepared primarily by those known during their school days as “shrimp.”

Born in the Huge State of Texas, Schwartz, like Stuart Little, was the runt of the family and forever remained the ­littlest guy in his class. Now, his own kids are taller than he is, and Schwartz, at 5-foot-3, still sometimes shops for clothes in the boys’ department.

SHORT: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All
By John Schwartz.
132 pp. Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press. (Ages 11 to 14)

This amusing and autobiographical chapter book is addressed to young readers who may be considering the purchase of elevator shoes. But it could also prove reassuring to their parents, who might have wondered whether a round of hormone injections could give their pipsqueak a boost — a dubious prospect at best, the book makes clear.

Schwartz offers several reassurances, for example that growth spurts usually occur between the ages of 12 and 15, so those frustrated about their size may get a second chance to catch up, though genetics, alas, plays a fateful role. Famous people can be short (Picasso, Robert ­Reich), including a striking number of dictators (Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, Franco). Any prejudices we might have that the tall are more likely to get the job and the girl are not supported by the evidence. And finally, while women may be attracted to “tall, dark and handsome,” they really like people they can talk to — which (see above) favors the diminutive and witty.

Humor, then, is Schwartz’s route to self-esteem, and there are laughs aplenty. He promises not to “talk down” to his readers and thanks his family for making him feel he is “seven feet tall,” even when they find it necessary to cut him “down to size now and then.” He also indicates that his favorite film is “Time Bandits,” an adventure story featuring intergalactic dwarfs. Surprisingly, no mention is made of the children’s classic “The Little Engine That Could.”

By “short” Schwartz means those considerably below average height (5-foot-9 for American men and 5-foot-4 for women). Most of us cluster near the center of the bell curve. At either end are the jockeys and professional basketball players; Danny De­Vito and Arnold Schwarz­enegger; R2-D2 and C-3PO. Gender, of course, complicates these issues. Smallness is a problem for boys but tallness, not so much; the opposite is the case for girls, though Michelle Obama may be changing that.

STAND STRAIGHT, ELLA KATE: The True Story of a Real Giant
By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise.
Unpaged. Dial Books for Young Readers. (Ages 6 to 8)

Which brings us to the other end of the bell curve, with Stand Straight, Ella Kate,” a bio­graphical picture book about Ella Kate Ewing (8-foot-4), written by Kate Klise. To picture the heroine’s time (1872–1913), the author’s sister, M. Sarah Klise, provides illustrations that could have been inspired by Garth Williams, if you can imagine an eight-foot character plopped down in the middle of his illustrations for the “Little House” books. In any event, the stage is set when Ella is 13 and a boy calls her a “freak,” and Ella’s mother insists that she never slouch — hence the title.

So, at the age of 18, holding her head high, Ella, no slouch, applied for carny work and became an exhibit, getting to tour the world as the Tallest Lady on Earth and earning as much in a month as her pa earned in a year of farming. Little-guy humor may be Schwartz’s path, but Klise suggests that being deferential had no place in Ella’s life; instead, she embraced herself as a spectacle with a towering pride. With her sizable earnings, she paid off her parents’ mortgage and bought a house for herself, which she outfitted with custom-made furniture. As a measure of Ella’s confidence, Klise has her character boast, “I had the longest bed in town.”

Even so, let me add that one of the most satisfying features of “Stand Straight, Ella Kate” can be seen in this book’s endpapers, where a drawing of Ella’s glove appears actual size (“glove size 24”). As a way of measuring and understanding, you can put your own hand down on top of that outline. It’s a humbling ­experience.

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (May 14, 2010). For related essays, see: the tiny (Smallness: Miyazaki’s “Arrietty” & Norton’s “The Borrowers” in the Los Angeles Times) and the humongous (“Paula Bunyan” from the New York Times Book Review).

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07. July 2016 by
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