“My Strange Shrinking Parents” by Zeno Sworder


On first glance, one might see the title My Strange Shrinking Parents and the cover illustration of a child with blue school shorts, white knee-high socks and black polished shoes towering over his mother and father dressed in a blue-collared shirt and suspenders and think that Melbourne-based writer and artist Zeno Sworder is writing a fairytale (or a “tall tale” as the cover text describes). And in some ways, Sworder is. Sworder starts the story with:


It goes without saying that all children believe their parents to be strange.


My Strange Shrinking Parents, Zeno Sworder (Thames & Hudson, January 2023)
My Strange Shrinking Parents, Zeno Sworder (Thames & Hudson, January 2023)

But Sworder then takes the reader in a different direction. The narrator’s parents are immigrants coming from “far-off lands” with “old shoes and empty pockets”, determined to create a better life for their young family. As the parents make sacrifices for their child, they are asked to exchange their height when they cannot afford to pay. For the narrator’s third birthday, for example, the parents ask what they can trade with a baker in exchange for a cake.


“Five centimetres should do it,” said the baker.
      “Five centimetres of what?” they asked.
      “Your height, of course,” replied the baker.


As the years pass, the parents continue to sacrifice their height in exchange for unaffordable requests—school fees, uniforms. The son grows taller; the parents shrink smaller. And yet they cannot stop shrinking, their world narrowing as their son’s expands.

As other children bully the narrator, the narrator is “as sure as a boy could be that this was all my parents’ fault.” He begs his parents to stop shrinking and to be like everyone else. His mother replies:


“Those children think we’re different but we’re not. Our hearts are just as big. Our love is just as good.”


Sworder’s metaphor for the immigrant experience is powerful and the visual representation of their sacrifice even more so. Seeing the parents progressively shrink against the backdrop of life proceeding “as normal” visually encapsulates the collective impact of years of strain and stress taken by many immigrant families. It is difficult not to be moved.


Sworder has chosen to use muted tones in his illustrations; a palette of grey, blue and violet wash over the pages bringing a sense of reflection to the book. The level of detail on each image—the expressions on the parents’ faces, the narrator’s dropped shoulders when he’s being called names, the straight faces of those asking the parents for their height, but also the moments of joy the family experiences—further add to the book and to the emotional pull of the story.

The text flows and although there is certainly impact with Sworder’s words, the effect of the parents’ dedication to their new family and to embracing a new country is given all the more impact through Sworder’s illustrations. And while the story is serious, Sworder also retains a certain joy; the metaphor is effective, but also enchanting: this is a beautiful book.

Sworder, the winner of the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Best New Illustrator, dedicates My Strange Shrinking Parents to his immigrant parents, but also to “all parents who burden and narrow their own lives in the hope that their children will be free to go further.” While certainly a personal story, My Strange Shrinking Parents will undoubtedly resonate with many.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.