I read Rachel DeWoskin’s Big Girl Small mostly because of Shannon’s wonderful review of it in Savvy Reader. At 5’1”, I would never dare to imagine I can understand how a little person feels, but in other ways, I do know how it is to grow up feeling different. I imagine practically everyone has felt different in some way or another. High school is tough enough without being 3’9”, and DeWoskin’s protagonist, Judy Lohden, handles it with sarcasm and wit: “If you’re born saddled with a word like Achondroplasia, you learn to spell.”
In so many ways, the things Judy goes through are things practically every teenager experiences. She is the new kid at a performing arts high school, and worries about fitting in. She has a “teacher crush” on her inspirational AP English teacher and feels sympathetic for her dorky math teacher. She falls immediately for the handsome Kyle Malanack when she sees him at a party: “I think maybe the very not-realness of teenage love makes it the only real thing. […] what’s true about love isn’t a quantity thing — it’s a quality one. And the reason I know that is because I still feel like I’m actually going to die.”
We know from the first chapter that something big and bad is going to happen to her and cause her to run away. What happens to her isn’t much of a mystery for long (Judy drops a lot of hints along the way), but that didn’t impede my enjoyment of the book at all. It just made me feel utterly helpless, watching her moving towards her situation without being able to do anything to stop it: “If the first boy you dare love pulls the worst Stephen King Carrie prank in the history of dating, then you run and hide.” It is however the next part that really struck me as being absolutely true and heartfelt: “Because who can love you after that? Maybe your parents. But how can you face them, when you’ve all spent so much time convincing each other that you’re normal?”
In a way, her parents’ overcompensating for her dwarfism by pretending she’s normal makes things worse; Judy actually appreciates it when her friend Goth Sarah admits she admires Judy for having the guts to go to parties and face all the stares. Yet at times, when reading about Judy dressing up for a party or daydreaming about Kyle, even I forget she’s a little person. The advantage of reading her story is that I sometimes got so lost in the universality of her experiences (I had a crush like that too! I agonized over outfits like that too! I stressed over impressing a teacher too!) and only remembered Judy’s size when she makes a joke about it.
Judy jokes a lot about her size; she gets very defensive about it, yet in a way I can understand. It’s like how some comedians say they crack jokes about themselves because it’s better than having other people poke fun at them. Her jokes are actually also funny, designed to put the person she’s talking to at ease with her size so they can get on with an actual conversation. Her narration is often hilarious, her observations spot-on, and her descriptions vivid. Judy is an interesting, smart and relatable teenager.
She’s also lucky in so many ways. Unlike some other YA books, where the hero/heroine has to face obstacles alone, Judy has a very strong support system. Her parents, while completely clueless at times, clearly love her very much, and even Bill, a middle aged man Judy meets after she runs away, becomes a good friend, being her sounding board and recipient of her story. Judy’s friends Molly and Meghan are both wonderful, supportive friends, and Goth Sarah is simply a standout — quirky and loyal, the best friend a teenage girl could want. I winced whenever Judy would shun Goth Sarah in favour of the more popular Ginger, who while definitely nice and friendly, was clearly (to my twenty-eight year old brain anyway) nowhere near as interesting.
Big Girl Small is a wonderful story, with relatable characters. I would have loved to be as independent and confident as Molly or Goth Sarah when I was in high school. I was probably a lot like Judy — I knew I was good at some things (not singing, which is Judy’s big talent), I was shy and insecure about other things, and I too have had crushes where I thought I would never again feel that way about anything else. I can only hope that I’d handled it with as much wit and aplomb as Judy has.