By Cari Best
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001
As a young child, I was never that outgoing. I listened attentively and always followed directions. I was quite shy up until I began acting in high school. Soon, everyone notice that I was quite talented, and I eventually transformed into a very gregarious character. In Shrinking Violet, we watch the blossoming of Violet from a shy spectator of life, to an active participant.
Violet just wanted to shrink-up in public. For as long as she can remember, all she likes to do is watch what is happening. During class she writes in the palm of her hand, “I AM ALLERGIC TO ATTENTION.” Irwin, the class bully, is always teasing and taunting Violet with crude comments like, “You have fat knees and hairy arms.” Violet would scratch her skin and twirl her hair when faced with these anxious moments. But, her best friend Opal remains a constant support and true friend.
In private, for an audience that included only Opal, Violet would do amazing impersonations of Elvis Presley, the President, and Captain Hook. When Opal inquired as to why she didn’t perform for the whole class, Violet shriveled into a dead silence and once again began itching her skin and twirling her hair.
Back in class, Mrs. Maxwell announced that the class would be performing a play about the Milky Way galaxy. Mrs. Maxwell assigned Violet to the part of Lady Space, an off-stage voice. Violet was not itching or twirling her hair anymore. She was excited and began reciting her lines all over her house. She even knew everyone else’s lines! In rehearsals, Mrs. Maxwell had trouble with the students, who were playing the planets of our solar system. None of them could remember their blocking. She then taught them the phrase: “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” Even the mnemonic device to remind them of the arrangement of the planets from the sun could not keep their stage orientation together.
Opening night soon came, along with “opening night jitters.” Everyone remembered their parts well…everyone except Irwin, who was playing the part of Mars. He spun around and crashed into scenery. “Now the planets looked like this: My Very Excellent Pizza Just Served Us Nine Mothers.” When time to deliver his lines, Irwin just stood there. Violet, from off-stage and in a perfect imitation of Irwin, proclaimed, “I am Irwin the Alien, maddest Martian on Mars. Scientists think there is no intelligent life on my planet. And they’re right!”
ZING! Irwin was dumbstruck in the lights. All he could do was “fidget and burp and twiddle his thumbs.” However, the performance continued and was met with thunderous applause. Backstage, Violet was met by several visitors and well wishers. Irwin tried to thank Violet for helping him out, but ended up insulting her all over again. This time, however, Violet did not shrink away. No more itching and no more twirling of hair!
Shrinking Violet tackles two very important topics. The first is the anxiety that we feel about being social situations that might be uncomfortable. I am often reminded of a joke that Jerry Seinfeld would tell about public speaking: “Surveys show that the #1 fear of Americans is public speaking. #2 is death. Death is #2. That means that at a funeral, the average American would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Students need to be reminded that there is a time and a place to let their lights shine. You cannot hid your talents under a bushel, but rather find a vehicle in which you let your passions soar.
This book should also be a reminder to students that bullying is unacceptable. Irwin’s behavior towards the shy Violet was completely hostile. If not for the support of friends like Opal, Violet could have deeper recessed into her introverted state. That is a place that can be dark, depressing, and extremely dangerous. When speaking to the class or performing in a skit, students must be reminded of respect. The only environment that truly works is a judgment free-zone.
Highlighted by Giselle Potter’s illustrations, which have a crude beauty to them, Shrinking Violet is now anything but. She has found her voice (although off-stage) and will not be afraid to use it in the future. Just as I found my passions, so too will young Violet.