Stand Straight, Ella Kate
By Kate Klise
Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
(Dial Books for Young Readers,New York, 2010, $16.99)
Children – and adults – are curious about physical differences. In Stand Straight, Ella Kate, writer Kate Klise and illustrator M. Sarah Klise appeal to that curiosity while respecting those who pique our interest. A fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century giant Ella Kate Ewing, the picture book describes how her size brought her both pain and great rewards.
Being much larger than her peers made life difficult for young Ella Kate in ruralMissouri. At school and community events, people of all ages stared and jeered at her. For a few years, her parents even kept her in seclusion to shield her from harassment. But by her late teens, Ella Kate had reached eight foot – and word of her height reached the big city. One day, a man from Chicago offered her a good-paying job. All she had to do was stand tall and let people look at her. Despite her parents’ misgivings, Ella Kate accepted the position. She participated in traveling shows, saw much of the world, made many friends, and gave her parents and herself a comfortable life. Her size was no longer a social liability, but a passport to adventure.
Stand Straight, Ella Kate is a charming, nuanced tale about the conflict between protecting oneself and being open to adventure. The first-person narrative suits Ella Kate Ewing perfectly: it sounds like a yarn an amiable Midwestern lady might spin for a young audience. Kate Klise’s Ella Kate uses regionalisms, including “fine and dandy trick” and “I hope I didn’t give him too much of a fright,” that evoke her time and place. M. Sarah Klise’s illustrations, while cheerful, convey just how much callousness Ella Kate had to endure. Round faces gape, point, and even glare at the mild-mannered young woman. The illustrator shows the character evolving, too: as Ellsa Kate enters show business, her face expresses uncertainty, restraint, and, finally, a growing confidence.
A thoughtful meditation on “freak” shows and exploitation, Stand Straight, Ella Kate is especially timely in an era when schoolyard bullying has become an epidemic. It is also a timeless children’s story with a familiar and timeless theme. As Ella Kate herself might have expressed it, whatever makes you different will come in useful some day.
Dorothy A. Dahm