Amid the tall, swaying palms, sparkling turquoise waters, and skimming brown pelicans of Little Scrub Island, a boy named Albert Quashie feels squashed under a boatload of troubles.
Not only has his best friend moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Not only has he skipped ahead a grade to find himself hopelessly behind in math.
Not only is he swimming in the hand-me-down school uniform of his much-taller brother.
But on the very first day of middle school, the gang of Stanley kids from Gatling Creek make up a stupid nickname for him that makes him want to crawl in a hole: Little Man.
Albert Quashie is short, and the rough, rowdy Stanleys are not going to let him forget it. “Little Man, Little Man you so small, didn’t hardly see you at all,” they chant.
Dread grips Albert, coils his stomach into knots each day as he heads to the taunts on the bus, the humiliation in math class, the dreariness of not fitting in…anywhere.
The pivot point in Albert’s life is a busdriver named Peachy.
Not only is Peachy kindhearted, but he’s the leader of a troupe of stiltwalkers — the Mocko Jumbies.
“High above the upturned faces of the audience, [the stilt walkers’] dark arms moved like whips. The stilts never stopped moving, and their bodies, tiny above the long wooden legs, swayed like palm fronds. The stilts’ tips tapped delicately as goats’ hooves on the concrete slab. The yards of silky cloth of every color that draped the long stilt legs fluttered and shimmered in the spotlights…One leaned so far backward that the crowd screamed in happy terror that he would fall, and then he sprung upright as if nothing happened. One stepped onto a tabletop and danced without knocking over a single glass.“
These acrobatic favorites of the Caribbean not only have nerves of steel, agility, and strength. They are TALL!
When Peachy invites Albert to join a school-age troupe of stilt walkers that he coaches, Albert is at first much too afraid to try. Gradually, though, Peachy encourages him to take a deep breath, lift his gaze on high, and join in. The lessons Albert learns from Peachy about stilt walking have a surprising cross-over into other areas of Albert’s life, and as the weeks and months go by, the trajectory of Albert’s life shifts to Purposeful and Belonging and Glad.
As we read Albert’s journey, Elizabeth Mann treats us to the tastes, sounds, sights, and smells of this Caribbean island world. Boxing Day festivals and dreadlocks, mango-cashew muffins and bottles of Ting, jumbies and ferry taxis pull us out of our winter armchairs into the fragrant, dancing, tropics. Mann has had a home in the British Virgin Islands for twenty years, and the authentic flavor shines through in her work.
Don’t you love that cover art?! It’s by Lesley Ehlers, who has also drawn a great map of Little Scrub Island and its neighbor, Big Island. I love maps in books. More illustrations would have helped us visualize this culture, but alas, the book is not illustrated. When we lived in West Africa, I saw some stilt walkers perform, and I’d encourage you to check some youtube videos out to help your kids understand what is going on in the story. Here’s a rather blurry link to one troupe.
Just a warning — the book starts out a little slow. Keep reading, though, as the story really picks up momentum about a quarter of the way through.
It’s a lovely, quick jaunt into regions unknown (to most of us) and a number of great characters for ages 9 and up.