Andi’s 16 year-old brother has finally gotten his visa to leave the Philippines and join his mother and stepfather in London. It’s been several years since her mom last made it over to visit him, and everyone is tremendously excited to see him. Andi’s expectations for her new big brother are high…she’s looking forward to being a little sister. And maybe Bernardo will love basketball as much as she does.
But when Bernardo arrives at the airport, he is a much bigger brother than she could ever have imagined. He is around eight feet tall.
Back in the Philippines, the people of his village believed his gigantic height made him the embodiment of a legendary giant who kept his people safe from earthquakes; they knew that if he left, the village was probably doomed. And although Bernardo knows he’s just a horribly tall kid (perhaps because he was cursed by a vindictive witch), sometimes he has felt as though he carried the crushing weight of the earth. Bernardo has another secret—a wishing stone that came to him in rather horrible circumstances. He wished on the stone to grow tall, and he did…
In London, Andi’s wishes are going wrong. Her brother is a giant who has no clue about how to live life in London, and, due to an unfortunate ceiling collapse, she has to share her room with him! She’s angry and miserable that her new school has no girls’ basketball team, even though she’s better than the boys. When Bernardo is hailed as the answer to the boys’ team’s prayers, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
But Bernardo wants badly to be a good brother. And so he shares the wishing stone with Andi….
It’s a warm, magical story, rich in detail and rich with honest, believable emotion. It’s told in the alternating voices of Bernardo and Andi, and this allows the author to share Bernardo’s story of growing up too tall in the Philippines, as well as the two kids’ reactions to each other and their new life together. The two different voices and settings emphasize the cross-cultural divide between the two siblings, a divide that I was pretty sure would eventually be crossed, and which, very happily, was.
Tall Story is a lovely example of a book in which the message of acceptance becomes simply part of the journey the characters and the reader take together. And it’s a lovely example of magical realism at its best—if you want to believe that curses and wishes are efficacious, you can, but it isn’t required.
(Edited to add: This was, in fact, nominated for the 2010 Cybils in the science fiction/fantasy category; it was one of the few books I didn't manage to get a hold of. I would probably have suggested moving it to straight middle grade--I lean more toward folklore and coincidence at work, rather than magic....but I put it on my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list anyway. Because maybe it is magic).
Note on age: there is no stereotypically "young adult" content--ie sex, drugs, and bad language-- in this book. But it is about "young adults" and it is so rich thematically, and such a good book, that I think it has appeal for both middle school and high school kids.
Tall Story has picked up three starred reviews (Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist), and it deserves them. A whole slew of reviews can be found nicely cached here.
Ps: For those of us who might feel Doubtful about sports, the basketball side-story doesn’t dominate the book, but nicely enhances the tension.