I love how our bimonthly themes are leading us to stories that we would not have otherwise discovered. With our Circus, Carnivale, and Paranormal Twists theme for January-February, it isn’t that easy to look for nonfiction picture books that would kind of connect with that theme.
I am glad to have found Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant as told by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise by sheer stroke of luck in our community library. It’s a perfect contribution for Nonfiction Monday which is hosted this week by Shelf-employed.
Ella Kate, the Gentle Giantess. Ella Ewing was born in 1872 in a place called Rainbow, Missouri. I did not even know about her until I opened this book from the Klise sisters. The picture book was written using Ella Kate’s voice, giving a different kind of nuance to the entire narrative.
It was only until Ella Kate was seven years old when she started growing at “a most startling rate.”
Mama couldn’t sew dresses fast enough to keep up. So she started adding fabric to the bottom of my favorite dress.
“Stand straight, Ella Kate,” Mama said when she was fixing my hem. But when Mama wasn’t looking, I hunched my back so I’d look smaller.
The reader also gets to see how Ella’s father would build a big desk for her in school so that she could fit her long legs under her desk. By age thirteen, she stood almost six feet tall. Towering at 8’4″ the doctors at the time were unaware of Ella Kate’s condition known as gigantism, a gland disorder. A Note from the Author found at the end of the book shared a few facts about Ella’s condition and the emotional distress that she suffered because of it. Kate Klise was also able to touch a chord in my heart as she spoke using Kate’s voice in the book:
My best friend was a girl named Pearl. Just like her name, Pearl was small and beautiful. When I got teased at recess on account of my size, Pearl suggested we run away.
“We’ll hide you in a secret place where no one can find you,” Pearl said.
She was only trying to be nice. But where could I hide? I was too big for everything.
I was too big for the world.
Finding Refuge in our Oddities and Strangenesses. Determined to shield Ella from a world that despises, taunts, and ridicules that which it does not understand, her parents decided to let her remain home after an untoward incident during their big Fourth of July Celebration in school when Ella Kate was chosen to recite the Declaration of Independence:
I practiced for weeks. When it was time, I walked out on stage and began to recite the famous words. But I stopped cold when I heard voices from the crowd.
“Would you look at that girl? cried one man. She’s as tall as a barn!”
“Her hands are as big as skillets,” laughed a woman.
“I’ll tell you what that girl is,” yelled a boy. “She’s a freak!”
I ran off the stage in tears.
My heart broke as I read those lines, imagining the pain she must have felt. Amidst the taunting and the humiliation, Ella’s parents would constantly remind her to “Stand Straight, Ella Kate.”
Things started to change for Ella Kate when a man who managed a museum in Chicago visited their farm, offering to pay good money for Ella Kate to simply stand tall, wear long dresses, and adopt a serious expression for seven hours a day while people stared at her. Initially, her father was fuming mad at the thought of total strangers gawking at his daughter, but Ella Kate decided to accept the job. And this literally changed her world.
At age eighteen, she left home to stand tall and proud in a museum and made a thousand dollars in a month: “Which was a whole lot of money in 1890. Back then you could buy twelve pencils and a bottle of ink for a dime.”
This was the beginning of Ella Kate’s journeys. She returned to Chicago in 1891 and started travelling the country for the next six years.
As Kate Klise noted in her Author’s Note:
At a time when most people traveled very little and women did not enjoy even the right to vote, Ella was both famous and financially independent. Between tours, she always returned home and shared her experiences with friends who could only dream of seeing the things Ella had seen. Ella’s house became the social center of her county.
Thus, Ella Kate was able to transform her shame into glory and her pain into a celebration of her very being.
… the more I saw of the world, the more I wanted to see. Because as big as I was, the world was so much bigger. And I intended to see it all.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly. As I was reading the book, I was struck at how contrasting our experiences are. I stand four feet eight on flats. And while it was difficult for me when I was younger, I now celebrate my pixieness and fairy height in all its glory. The song that was running through my head as I was reading the book was Shrek’s Let your freak flag fly. My family and I watched the play Shrek, the Musical at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco a year ago, and this particular song is what I enjoyed the most. Seemed fitting for this lovely ‘not-so-tall-tale.’
Here is another video clip, this one on Ella Ewing.
Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: 1 of 12
PictureBook Challenge Update: 11 of 120
Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant by Kate Klise and Pictures by M. Sarah Klise. Dial Books for Young Readers: An imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc, 2010. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.