A Word In Edgewise: A Question Of Size?

With the increased clamor over what children may read–or not–I’ve become curious about what’s new for kids. A wide variety, it turns out. Two, aimed at the youngest readers that may be dealing with life in a new country (not necessarily the US) caught my eye recently, each dealing with size, a large issue for little ones.

“My name is Zimdalamashkermishkada,” a lad introduces himself in Sandhya Parappukkaran’s The Boy that Tried to Shrink His Name. “It trips me up every morning like long shoelaces that always come undone.”

Illustrator Michelle Pereira unfurls strings of orange yarn and stacks of infinitely unfolding, 1960s computer paper to highlight their devilish tenacity–like that name– to complicate young Zim’s (his own truncated version he uses with new classmates. Zim, like the author, hails from a South Indian homeland and is starting school on a new shore–perhaps Australia, where the author now resides.

This is not a tale of a child bullied for his odd name; his new teacher and classmates are friendly, but rather a gentle reminder aimed at the 5-8 reader or be-read-to that everyone is fine as they are, and needn’t hide their best self. Take Zim’s first friendship: “Hi, I’m Ellie. What’s your name?” asks the smiling, pigtailed girl on the school bus, causing Zim’s ubiquitous orange thread to explode into a bus-filling orange pufferfish of doubt. But Ellie is no quitter.

Neither are the adults in My Strange Shrinking Parents. It’s a fantasy, but one spotlighting how immigrant parents literally be-little themselves to get by in a new world. Author Sworder illustrates in pencil and watercolor evocative of Japanese woodblock prints. Their realism counterpoints the story of a couple, arriving with “old shoes and empty pockets,” who discover they can barter inches for their son’s schooling, books, even birthday cake.

The boy is teased, then blames his shrinking parents. “Our hearts are just as big. Our love is just as strong,” reminds his mother. Come to manhood and father himself, he comprehends their sacrifices. He builds them a tiny house, carves them furniture from cedar wood, as his father had carved his toys.

Young Zim begins to blossom when Ellie invites him skateboarding. She’s something of a whiz. He’s not. But as he practices, he improves, and with each increment of skill, he calls out another syllable of his name until he finally masters the difficult drop and turn. The kids call out “Go Zim!” but Ellie yells, “His name is Zimdalamashkermishkada!” and the entangling orange thread becomes a soaring bird. School uniforms or custom of the new land, the girls wear green dresses and the boys orange shirts and green shorts, not in the least hindering Ellie or others from donning helmets and dropping into the skateboard ramp and flipping about at the top.

The tall son continues to take care of his teacup-height parents, who stopped “paying” in inches once their job was done. It’s an uplifting tale to set against Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, where that eponymous plant evinced a toxic need to give all, while the greedy-needy child grew into a greedy-needy adult, neither evincing warmth or affection..

In “A Brief Note” afterword, Zworder says of his own parents: “I learned something about the strange nature of love; when given it enlarges both the giver and the receiver. In this way our parents were giants.”

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