A Not-So-Little Life

Gemma and the Giant Girl – words by Sara O’Leary, pictures by Marie Lafrance
Tundra Books, 2021

Even though the narrator begins Gemma’s story by stating that she “lived in a very nice little house and had a very nice little life,” only the first part of that sentence is strictly true. Yes, her house is little compared to the wide world to which the “giant” will soon introduce her, but her truly nice life is not little, from her perspective.  As any child, or adult, fascinated by dollhouse fiction knows, imagining the life inside these miniaturized worlds is endlessly intriguing.  Children, and dolls representing them, are small and vulnerable, lacking some control over daily events, big and small. Looking inside a dollhouse, and into the possible lives of those who live there, is a thrilling experience.  The empathic text by Sara O’Leary’s (author of This is Ruby and This is Sadie), and Marie Lafrance’s imaginative pictures, transport young readers to Gemma’s world from outside in and inside out. The book is a gentle exploration of childhood.

Who is Gemma, and how “little” is her home? When she asks her parents, “Will I grow up one day?” their answer is reassuring, but also literally true, because she lives in a dollhouse. Children are ambivalent about growing up and losing their parents’ protection, and this won’t happen to Gemma. 

But one a giant and all-seeing eye appears in her window, (link to image), everything is thrown into literal and figurative disarray.  A well-intentioned “giant” has entered the lives of Gemma and her family.  Yet Gemma realizes that this intruder is “somebody’s little girl,” and Lafrance depicts her bending to doll eye level and peering with wonder into the house. The beautiful house is suddenly a mess, with furniture overturned but Gemma and her parents standing bravely together.  There is an echo of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, where the small people need to determine if larger ones mean them harm. 

As in The Borrowers, the giant starts to bring the dollhouse family lots of stuff.  While this all-powerful new benefactor certainly means well, Gemma realizes that “Some of the new things were nice.  Some were less nice.”  Children perceive that not all adult interventions are to their liking, and Gemma feels the same way about the giant girl.  Scale is one of the most intriguing parts of dollhouse live and fiction; when the girl brings the family a book, this enormous item becomes a kind of theater scenery, worth the effort it requires to turn the pages. 

When the giant picks up Gemma and suspends her over the house, readers may wonder if this move isn’t a bit insensitive. Suddenly, Gemma is forced to look down at her home and at her parents, who are “frozen with fear.”  It seems time for the giant to leave well enough alone!  There is a dizzying sense for children that the world may not be exactly as they thought, as Gemma is forced to understand how small her life seems in relation to the giant’s.  All’s well that ends well, as Gemma is gently returned to her “little life,” the one which she loves.  O’Leary and Lafrance have captured the paradox of childhood, of wanting to remain small but eager to find out about the bigger world that awaits.  Their book is a beautiful and subtly poignant expression of this truth.

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