Review of the Day: My Strange Shrinking Parents by Zeno Sworder
My Strange Shrinking Parents
By Zeno Sworder
Thames & Hudson
On shelves January 10th
I don’t think that anyone would contest the idea that your occupation has an impact on the way in which your brain works on a day-to-day basis. Work trains our minds into certain patterns. My job, for example, for many years was to be a children’s librarian. Part of what that means is that any time a person, be they a small child or an adult, came up to my desk, I had to be prepared to make connections. For example, if an adorable 3-year-old begged for “scary books” I needed to have a roster of titles in my brain to pull from in order to meet that need. In the children’s librarian world, the better you are at this kind of association, the better you are at your job. What I didn’t realize for a long time was how this would affect not simply my friendship with children’s authors (anytime one told me an idea for a book I’d inevitably try to come up with similar already existing ideas, which is not always consider a polite response), but also with the act of reviewing. I’ve reviewed children’s books almost as long as I’ve worked as a librarian and normally drawing associations between books is a good thing. There are times, however, when you wish you could see a book just for itself, on its own merits, without constantly comparing it to everything else out there. My Strange Shrinking Parents is a marvelous example of this. Reading Zeno Sworder’s haunting and magical metaphor for immigration, but with all the rules of a fairy tale intact, I wanted desperately to compare the book to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It was only after a little consideration that I realized how unfair that was to both Tan and Sworder. The fact of the matter is that My Strange Shrinking Parents is entirely its own creation, standing on its own two feet, with its own internal logic and rules. It is, in fact, one of the best takes on the experiences of children of immigrant parents I’ve ever seen in a picture book form. It stands, as I say, tall.
Before he was born, a boy’s parents left their countries and moved to a new place. “They had old shoes and empty pockets”. The two determined to give their child everything he would want, and to keep their daily problems from him. So when the time came for them to buy him a birthday cake, get him some schooling, or buy him books and shoes, they would barter. Just a couple inches of their height, and they could help their child. As time went by the boy was teased for being different and blamed his parents, begging them to stop shrinking. But the parents loved their son, and by the time he was able to get a job of his own, they were quite small indeed. So when he had a family of his own, he built his parents a beautiful house and made it so they would never have to work again. As the lullaby from his babyhood said, “Though our lives may be humble, / We are giants within.” Inspired by the works of Oscar Wilde, Shel Silverstein, and Stan Sakai comes a story of truly enduring love.
Where do your eyes go when you look at the cover of this book? For me, the image is split, almost immediately, between two parts. On the one hand my instinct is to read the title first. Sworder places it dead center on the page, on a square with beveled edges, as if to make it resemble a stamp or the sides of an old photograph. Then, immediately, you look at the woman seated just off-center to the left. Knees together, she’s perched, almost delicately, on what you later realize is her son’s left foot. Clad in a red dress, it’s a supremely dignified position, as if she’s posing for a professional photograph. To her right is her husband, one hand on her shoulder looking not at the viewer/camera lens, but right at her. Then, visible only up until the bottoms of the pockets of his shorts, is their son. You know these are the parents being referred to in the title, but again and again your eye goes back to that mother. The title itself feels like it should be goofy, but you can’t separate yourself from her poise. And you may wish, if only for a moment, to have a little of that poise yourself, whatever your size.
What the cover also does, I should mention, is make you keenly aware of Sworder’s illustration style. It’s a gentle surreal realism. Something you might get if Chris Van Allsburg were influenced by the Japanese woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshinge. And, yes, there’s a hint of Shaun Tan in there as well. This realism is part of the reason the book works as well as it does. This is a world where it is perfectly normal to demand height for labor. Indeed, none of the adults in this book see anything wrong with the transaction of taking something from someone who has nothing else to trade for the things a child might need to grow up. Rereading the book several times also rewards sharp-eyed readers. I am convinced that there is a special place in the firmament above for illustrators that give parents more to see with every read and reread they perform on a book. It took me many times of going over this story before I realized that the shot at the beginning of the parents lifting up their son (while the viewer peers over a shelf containing bonsai plants and cracked tea cups) is repeated later with a similar shot of that same son lifting up HIS child. Only now his parents are standing on that shelf, not in front of it.
There are also small details in addition to these larger, more obvious references, that could elude you if you weren’t careful. For example, there is a small gift for sharp eyes located at the end of this book. It’s on the back bookflap, but also on the endpapers. Look there and you’ll see an array of beautifully rendered teapots of all kinds of colors and shapes. Some are intricate and ancient while others are rough and contemporary. And under the bookflap, red as the dress on the cover of the book, is an incredibly tiny teapot. No larger, you might think, than a pebble on a beach. Look close now. There it is (with two tiny cups) on the back of the book. Is it in the story? At first you might not think so and then . . . yes! Yes indeed, it’s beside the parents on that shelf I mentioned earlier. The one where they watch their son lifting his own new baby. And did you notice too that the other red object in the story, the red of the mother’s dress (which so entranced me on the cover), is consistent throughout the pages? The only time it fades is in that last image, where the parents stand outside in the fading light.
In his note at the end Sworder writes that, “while this story is imagined, its foundations are the milestones of my journey from child to parent. It is a fairytale woven together with memory.” I could tell you about all the ways Sworder’s storytelling choices went right. I could wax eloquent upon the wordless two-page spread that just shows two blossoms floating free of a tree against a blue sky. Or I could go another route. I could tell you all the ways that Sworder’s storytelling could have gone desperately, horribly wrong. For example, fairytale that this is, Sworder could have gone the Hans Christian Andersen route with his telling and traipsed it into tragic territory. Instead, he knew that a picture book must sometimes be all about balance. There are heartrending scenes, as when the boy kneels before his small mother, crying, arms wrapped around her, begging her to stop shrinking. Promising nothing she just says, “Those children think we’re different but we’re not. Our hearts are just as big. Our love is just as good.” And it’s the succinct rendering of those lines that make it work. Even without the gorgeous imagery, if you read this book and just read the words alone, you’d tear up at that moment just like I do. Every single time.
There is a dedication written at the beginning of this book. It reads, “To my immigrant parents. And to all parents who burden and narrow their own lives in the hope that their children will be free to go further.” I started this review by mentioning that I sometimes cannot read a new work for children without immediately trying to pair it with a similar title or titles. But if we really get into the metaphor and the meat of the story, what other picture book out there even talks half as plainly about the debt children owe to their parents? There are lots and lots of picture books about immigration. Often they are about the children that travel to new locations with their parents. Where, then, is the story about second generation kids like Sworder? Kids that may never fully understand the debt they owe these parents? And as I wrack my brain I realize that really, I don’t have to do that. My Strange Shrinking Parents is unique. It shouldn’t have to be. We should have reams of stories that cover similar territory. But if I had to have just one (not like I have a choice, but still) I would want it to be this book. Tone, image, story, and metaphor. Each piece of this book fits snugly together with every other piece, like a well-constructed puzzle. Simple enough for children to understand. Layered enough for adult readers to appreciate. Strangely perfect.
On shelves January 10th.
Source: Galley sent by publisher for review.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2023, Reviews, Reviews 2023
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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