From her home on a Missouri farm, writer Kate Klise has collaborated on many imaginative and funny children’s books with her sister, illustrator M. Sarah Klise. Here she explains how she became interested in Ella Ewing, a real-life giantess and the subject of the Klise sisters’ sixth picture book, Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant.
No, really. I promise. I did not write Stand Straight, Ella Kate while driving. I’m not nearly that coordinated—or should I say crazy? But I did have an epiphany while driving that shaped the text of the book.
A little background: I first read about Ella Ewing in Rural Missouri, a terrific magazine published by my electric cooperative. I was shocked to read that Ella Ewing (1872-1913), who toured the United States as the World’s Tallest Woman, grew up just a few hours north of my 40-acre farm. In all the years I’d spent as a child reading about bearded ladies and tattooed men, how had I missed Ella Ewing, the Missouri Giantess, who stood eight feet, four inches tall in her size 24 shoes?
I ripped out the Rural Missouri article and sent it to my illustrator sister Sarah, in Berkeley, California, with the note: “Wow. Do you love her or what?” Sarah read the story and sent it back to me with “LOVE her!” written above Ella’s photo.
I think what initially drew us to Ella was the look of grace and quiet elegance on her face. But there was also something Mona Lisa-ish about her. Who was this woman? What was her story? I set off to her old hometown in northern Missouri to find out.
There’s been very little written about Ella other than an out-of-print self-published book by Bette J. Wiley and a 1977 master’s dissertation by Barbara Chasteen. Both were helpful, but I needed primary sources. So I was thrilled to find that the Scotland County Memorial Library had a file folder filled with photos and newspaper articles about Ewing.
I learned that she was a woman who, beginning at age 18, appeared in museums and traveling circus shows. For seven hours a day, she stood in a long dress with a serious expression on her face while people bought tickets to stare at her. She was paid as much as one thousand dollars a month, which was a lot of money back in her day. Still, imagine being promoted as a “freak.” Even newspapers of the day used this term.
The more I read about Ella, the more I fell in love with her. She was funny. She was kind and patient. And she had a sense of dignity lacking in those around her—the promoters, reporters, people who laughed and gawked and stuck pins in her leg to see if she stood on stilts.
But there was the problem. How could I write about Ella without seeming like I was gawking at her, too? I couldn’t figure it out. For the first 10 or 12 drafts, the story wasn’t working.
And then I was driving down a country road, thinking about Ella, wondering how I could respectfully tell her story, and listening to the radio when I heard Arlo Guthrie sing: “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.”
That’s when it hit me. I needed to rewrite the text in the first person. I needed to be Ella.
I drove home—and okay, maybe I was driving a little fast. But I waited to text until I got to my desk, where I rewrote Ella’s story from her perspective. And that’s when the story started to work.
I’m sure some people will read Stand Straight, Ella Kate as a when-life-gives-you-lemons, make-lemonade kind of story. And in a sense, it is. But to my mind, Ella’s story is a more universal story about growing up, literally, and how so often the things we dislike about ourselves as children, the things that make us different and cause people to laugh at us, are the very things that allow us to take extraordinary journeys.
In my case, for all future journeys I’ll have the radio playing in the hopes that I’ll be lucky enough to hear my text “sing” while driving.
Kate Klise and her sister, M. Sarah Klise, have co-created many epistolary novels for young readers, beginning with Regarding the Fountain and continuing with their new series, 43 Old Cemetery Road. Kate’s next novel is a solo project titled Grounded. It will be released by Feiwel and Friends in November.
Author photo by Dawn Shields.