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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Not So Tall for Six
Not So Tall for Six
by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer
At times like this a sneaky thought tip-tippity-two-steps across Kylie Bell's brain. She is so tall, the ground rumbles like a mighty oil gusher when she runs. She is so tee-totally-tall, big kids can play hopscotch in her shadow.
She is so positively giraffelike, she gets a permanent crick in her neck from looking down at teh tops of her friends' heads. Sigh.
--Not So Tall For Six by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer, p. 8.
Six-year-old Kylie Bell is the not-so-tallest in her first grade class. Sometimes it gets her down when she can't see past people's heads or reach the fountain--but she never lets it get her down for long. Instead, she pulls up tidbits of wisdom from her family, who are all not-so-tall like her, and reminds herself that, like her family (and their motto), she is brave, smart, and big of heart. When a bully starts taunting her about her size, Kylie draws on those qualities to stop the bully, and make friends with him. Not So Tall for Six is a book with heart. It shows that height doesn't matter, and that acts of kindness can sometimes reach a bully, and make a bully into a friend.
Aston (Mama's Wild Child/Papa's Wild Child; An Egg Is Quiet) opens the book with great humor, in the way that Kylie describes herself--the not-so-tallest one in first grade. This creative way of describing being short is used throughout the book, which should help kids who are less than average height with their self image, and give them a way to reframe it. Aston vividly captures the feeling of being short, through the things that upset Kylie (not being able to see past people's heads, not being able to reach the fountain when others can), and through her intense daydreaming and desire to be taller than anyone, in fantasy levels, after she's teased for being short. Not So Tall for Six shows that kids can be teased and put down for their height, or lack of height, just like any difference, and may provide validation for some readers, and increased sensitivity for others.
Kylie is a strong girl character; she stands up to the bully, draws on her inner resources to act with integrity, and knows her own strengths. She's also likable, kind-hearted, and an easy-to-relate-to character, since most people have wanted to fit in and be accepted (or not made fun of) at one point or another. Because the reader cares, it's uplifting when Kylie triumphs in the end--most especially that she stops the bully behavior, but also that she feels tall for a while.
Kylie mentions family members throughout the book, drawing on positive actions or wisdom remembered, bringing a sense of family. This also helps to give the feeling that Kylie exists off the page as well as on. Aston gets us inside Kylie's thoughts, emotions, and observations beautifully; I was so there when Kylie dreamed she was bigger than others, and when she saw the bully's shame and knew she had to be a good person.
Aston strings together words in playful and fresh ways, such as that a thought "tip-tippity-two-steps across Kylie's brain." Children should have fun with the language. Bits of humor pop up throughout the book, such as when Kylie looks straight up the bully's nostrils, or when she breathes two "ladylike, rhino-sized breaths." That humor helps keep the book from being too heavy. Yet there is also depth, emotion, and awareness of what it feels like to be bullied and to be afraid. And when Aston writes that Rusty, the bully, taunts her in his singin'-meanie voice, the reader knows exactly what she means.
Aston uses vivid, creative descriptions and analogies, such as the bully being a "half-starved rattlesnake". Most analagies work, though some don't work as well. Some of the analogies are continued and built on throughout the book, such as the bully being snake-like, which brings continuity. However, others are very different and all jumbled together, making far too many analogies in a sort space of text--such as Kylie being like a spooked horse, an oil gusher, a giraffe all in the span of four pages. This may cause some confusion for young readers. Many of the analogies work when they are Kylie's own observations, but when she brings them into her dialogue as if they are fact, without any other linkage, and the characters just understand, it may also cause confusion for the reader.
At times the text seems to jump abruptly from scene to scene, and to include too much backstory. When backstory is inserted to tell us where Kylie gets her bravery from--she takes after her great-uncle Fergus--the insertion makes a disconnect between the bully blocking her sky, and Kylie's reaction. I also didn't feel strongly placed in the setting or storyline through the text, especially in the beginning; I was surprised when we found ourselves at the playground. Though the first grade is mentioned on the first page, a lot of backstory came afterward--another instance where, for me, it interfered with the story flow. I would have preferred a lot less backstory. Still, that didn't stop me from rooting for Kylie, or being delighted when she triumphed in the end.
Dormer's (Aggie and Ben) pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations are freely drawn with great expression, and have a childlike quality that brings a playful and light feeling. Dormer also creates a distinct setting for the book--he makes a desert setting, with sand, cactuses, and snakes which are incorporated throughout the illustrations, even using cactus-like quills around a green striped doorway; the bully having a rattlesnake tail instead of feet; and a palette that brings the feeling of the desert through browns, yellows, oranges, and khaki greens. Cacti are also reflected in the title text on the front cover.
Dormer emphasizes Klyie's smallness through oversized furniture and people, especially the bully who, at times, looms like a giant. This follows the emotion in the text, and how one's own size or that of another can seem to change with intense emotion. Setting details also work with the emotion; buildings jump into the air when Kylie does. Only the barest of setting details are used to place the characters in their environment, and this brings a lightness to the pages, as does Dormer's use of white space on some of the illustrations.
Kylie stands out in most illustrations, with her bright orange hair and yellow dress, though there are a few illustrations where she's not the focus. Kylie's hair is also the same shade as the bully's hat, which is an interesting visual way of showing us that they are connected. Dormer also makes use of multiple patterns in most illustrations, bringing visual interest.
Though at times it feels there are unnecessary details, Not So Tall for Six is an uplifting, enjoyable story, full of hope, an understanding of what it feels like to be bullied, and a strong girl character who faces bullying and stops it. At times the writing is quite beautiful. Recommended.
-Added May 22, 2008
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