Review by Jenny Truong
In his latest children’s book, My Strange Shrinking Parents, Sworder not only describes the traditional narrative of hard-working and sacrificing immigrant parents through the eyes of their son, but also captures what it feels like to be the child of these parents once you have grown up and come to understand the enormity of their actions.
When I first came across My Strange Shrinking Parents it was the indented postage stamp on the cover that made me open it. The stamp with its blue outline felt nostalgic, an artifact from childhood frequently used by my parents, but there were many other powerful themes packed in this children’s book that resonated deeply with my own experience of being a child of immigrant parents. This beautiful publication is a prime example of how children’s literature uses metaphor to appeal to both young and adult readers, and how as adults we can reflect on our own experiences from a certain distance.
In My Strange Shrinking Parents, the adults are constantly working, their lives shaped by the sacrifices they make for their child. Through subtle illustrations, their Asian appearance and home are shown in contrast to the Australian surroundings, evoking a sense of alienness that can be understood by most Asian readers. It also illustrates the early struggles of an immigrant family, both in acclimatising to a new culture and with receiving little financial support to do so. The liminal experience of not belonging can render even the most basic interaction strange, uncomfortable and at times incite feelings of powerlessness. Despite this, the parents in the story endure these exchanges in order to provide their son with a ‘normal’ childhood.
The quirkiest and most symbolic part of the story occurs when, having no money to buy their son a birthday cake, they ask the local baker what they can give in exchange for free goods. The baker holds out his thumb and index finger together and requests ‘five centimetres’ of their ‘height’. A strange request and one in which the parents shrink as their son grows—exchanging their height for school fees, uniforms, books, shoes and all the things their son required.
This culminates in the son (now double the size of his parents) kneeling down one day after being bullied at school to hug his standing mother and begging his parents ‘to stop shrinking, to be just like all the other parents’. The son’s feelings of alienation and tracing these feelings of being different back to his family and identity is a common theme in writings of the immigrant experience.
For children of immigrant parents, the metaphor of our parents becoming smaller and smaller is impactful.
It represents the flip in the parent-child dynamic that is deeply embedded in us. Seeing visual depictions of a child bigger than their parents in My Strange Shrinking Parents evokes feelings of vulnerability and even pity. These feelings are magnified when you know that the parents are diminishing not only in stature but also in the dreams and desires they once had, which they have had to abandon in order to survive—so that their children can thrive.
Much like the parents in this book, my parents were also occupied with working and worrying about the next expense instead of their own needs. As I grew older, my parents found the time and space to reflect on their own youthful desires and missed opportunities.
Through illustrating the benefits of having ‘short parents’, Sworder masterfully evokes lightness whilst depicting the poignant undertones of the situation. The child fits comfortably with his parents in the family’s small bed, they run races where the protagonist claims ‘sometimes I even let them win’, and they can all share the same clothes. While these vignettes sweetly point to the deep family relationship, they also symbolise the reversal of parent and child roles. This is especially relatable to many immigrant children whose parents face severe language barriers. As a ten-year-old I helped my parents fill out government forms, and I acted as a novice interpreter. The way my parents were treated like children is mirrored in My Strange Shrinking Parents: as the parents become so small, they live in a small dollhouse and will only venture outside on non-windy days.
However, certain aspects of the relationship dynamic will always remain unchanged. Even as an adult who is looking after his greying parents, the protagonist still sings the lullaby that his mother sang to him when he was a child. While the relationship role reversal is a frequent occurrence in the immigrant family experience, it is not constant and clear-cut. The dependency goes both ways, and the cultural complexities in trying to gain independence within an immigrant family are well documented. Chinese-Australian author Alice Pung highlights the difference in ‘Anglo culture’ where independence is gained at 18, whilst in ‘immigrant cultures’ one is always a child to their parents. My Strange Shrinking Parents doesn’t depict the parents as powerless per se, instead they’ve given up a lot of themselves for their child. This is complemented by the fact that the son observes and acknowledges these sacrifices as he grows into an adult and has a family of his own. In speaking of the book, Zeno Sworder reflects on his childhood since becoming a father himself—including his mother’s sleepless nights as she nursed and comforted him through illnesses.
Though this may not have been Sworder’s intention, the book also brings to mind the generational ‘guilt’ that immigrant children feel—that we can never replicate or pay back the love that has been gifted to us. This doesn’t have to be a negative emotion, however, and I don’t conceptualise ‘guilt’ in terms of resentment; rather, it is an admiration for my parents and a sadness that they weren’t able to experience the opportunities they created for me. As Zeno Sworder states in his notes to the readers: when love is ‘given it enlarges both the giver and the receiver. In this way our parents were giants’.
My Strange Shrinking Parents was published by Thames and Hudson with a RRP of $25.99. It is available at most online and local retailers.
Jenny Truong is a student at the University of Melbourne who is currently studying the Master of Publishing and Communications. Jenny works part-time as an educational editorial and publishing assistant.
Images kindly provided by Thames and Hudson.