Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Girl Giant includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kristen den Hartog. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Part coming of age story, part portrait of a marriage, The Girl Giant is set just after World War II and tells the story of Ruth—a young girl who quickly and inexplicably grows into a giant. An only child and an outcast among her peers, Ruth spends much of her time alone. But Ruth possesses an extraordinary gift: a mysterious insight into the inner lives of those around her, including her parents who struggle to protect their giantess daughter from the constant stares and whisperings of the world, while wrestling with the trauma of their own pasts. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, The Girl Giant explores the complexity of difference.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on in The Girl Giant Ruth says, “But something good can come from even the most terrifying things. For everything that is taken away, something else is given.” Do you agree? Discuss examples from the novel.
2. Is there something universal about Ruth’s isolation or otherness? Did you identify with any of her insecurities, hopes, or fears? Did Ruth’s awkwardness remind you of any events or feelings you encountered in your own adolescence?
3. Ruth has the mysterious ability to see into the emotional lives and dark secrets of her family’s past and present. She even describes what it was like to be in utero. Why do you think she possesses this power? In her case, is this knowledge a blessing or a curse? Can it be both?
4. How is James and Elspeth’s marriage both challenged and enriched by Ruth’s size and their concern for her? Do they work well as a team? Why or why not?
5. Which of the problems James and Elspeth encounter have nothing to do with Ruth’s condition and everything to do with their own baggage brought with them throughout their lives?
6. Even before Ruth started growing, her parents were anxious for her. How does Ruth’s condition exemplify the universal concern that all parents have for their children, no matter their size?
7. How do the various stories about other giants, both real and imagined, relate to Ruth’s existence? How does this mythology frame her experience?
8. Ruth’s height enables her to see the world from a different perspective—literally. How does it do so figuratively, as well?
9. Discuss James and Elspeth’s marriage. Consider James’ affair with Iris, Elspeth’s background, and the following quote in your response: “But then if there had been no war, he would not have been with Iris, cheating on Elspeth, because he never would have married Elspeth in the first place.” How do the events that took place during the war and at Dieppe cast a shadow on their relationship? Was it a flawed relationship to begin with? Why or why not? Do you believe James and Elspeth ever truly loved each other?
10. Throughout The Girl Giant, Ruth acknowledges that her size makes her capable of great harm to other people. Why do you think Ruth never acts on this knowledge? How does this self-awareness frame Ruth interactions with her peers and her parents?
11. When Ruth first meets Suzy, she is very lonely and it is clear how much she wants to befriend her. Why do you think Suzy was interested in Ruth? Did you anticipate that their friendship would end badly?
12. Ruth says: “Right then I understood that there are categories for love, the way there are languages within all language, and currencies of money.” How would you categorize Ruth’s love for Suzy? Was it a crush? Pity? Sheer gratefulness to have a real friend?
13. Discuss the characters who witnessed Ruth’s accident: the florist, the woman with the cake, the boy who worked in the record store, Ned the truck driver, Suzy, and Officer McCaul. How did their accounts and reactions to the accident differ? How were they similar? How would the reading experience have been different if this scene was told exclusively from Ruth’s perspective?
14. Did the medical explanation James and Elspeth received about Ruth’s condition change the mythical nature of her character? Why or why not? How did this touch of science change the trajectory of the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Kristen den Hartog writes that much of her inspiration for The Girl Giant came from a Diane Arbus photograph titled “Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970.” Print a copy of the photo and discuss with your group your reactions to this iconic photo in light of reading The Girl Giant. For more representations of Diane Arbus’ work, visit diane-arbus-photography.com.
2. Considering listening to Sound Portraits documentary of the "Jewish Giant" here: soundportraits.org/on-air/the_jewish_giant/.
3. Discuss what you think it would feel like to be a giant, like Ruth. If you’re a parent, discuss what you would do if your child were a giant.
4. If you are interested in reading more about giants, consider the following books: The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant O’Brien by Hilary Mantel, and The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.
A Conversation with Kristen den Hartog
You’ve written that one of your inspirations for The Girl Giant was Diane Arbus’s photograph, “Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970.” When did you first see it? Why did this particular image speak to you?
I’ve known about that photo for a long time, so when I was writing the book I kept thinking of it, and searched it out. I love how ordinary the background is and how ordinary the parents are, but the son rising up changes everything. The image inspired me because of the size of the boy in relation to his parents, but more importantly it reminded me of that feeling when you first have a child – you never imagine how monumental the experience will be until it happens to you. And as a new parent, there’s this sense of, Oh, this is just the beginning.
Throughout the novel, stories of other giants—both real and imaginary—are interwoven with Ruth’s own story. How much research did you do on the subject of giants in history and literature before you began writing? Where do you think Ruth fits into this mythology?
The research and the writing happened in tandem. Once I’d decided to make Ruth grow, I realized I needed to know how her condition would feel for her, what it would look like, and how it would be responded to medically during the time the story was set. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the magical quality of the storytelling, and the sense of the child’s viewpoint. So blending the two – real and make believe – seemed the ideal approach. In the end, it created a character rooted in both those worlds. And I was amazed to discover the similarities between actual giants and fairy tale giants: the physical features, the deep voices, the mood swings, the vision problems.
In The Girl Giant you describe many of Elspeth and James’s concerns and anxieties about Ruth in a way that feels universal for all parents. How has your own experience raising a daughter informed your characterizations of Elspeth and James?
I think it’s because I’m a parent that I so badly wanted to include the parents’ perspective in this novel. That sense of responsibility we feel for our children is phenomenal. I can relate to Elspeth following Ruth to school and longing to fix every little thing for her, even though I know it’s not the right thing to do for a child in the long run. I remember, before we had Nellie, how we thought our lives would carry on in more or less the same way, and she would tag along with us. And then when she came, even though she was a tiny baby, she was ENORMOUS in the way she took over. We were a bit blind-sided by her.
Ruth describes the tendency to recall major events more easily than mundane occasions, but you were still able to convey the daily tribulations of Ruth’s everyday life: the shoes and clothing that needed to be specially made, the doorways that had to be raised, etc. How did you balance the bigger events with the daily practicalities?
These kinds of details were really essential if the reader was to understand how it would feel to inhabit Ruth’s body. Holding a pencil, placing huge feet on ordinary steps. There are so many things we take for granted. It was actually quite a challenge to imagine her physical self – not looking at her, but looking out from her.
Ruth has a special ability to see everything as though from a world above, but we are never given any explanation as to why or how. Why did you leave this part of the novel ambiguous?
I began writing in third person, and something in me insisted on first person, so that Ruth was telling her own story. I did it by instinct, and every once in a while I’d stop myself because it didn’t make sense for her to be telling us things she couldn’t know. But then I’d push on, because I knew it needed to be that way, even if I didn’t yet know why. Later I realized I was giving Ruth power. I didn’t want her to be a victim. And then of course the idea of her growing up and over her life worked so well with the fairy tales and legends woven throughout the story. The story has magical elements, but is also very grounded in reality. I was always thinking about balancing those two qualities throughout the novel. Ruth’s condition is real. It happens to real people. But stories, even fantastical ones, have always been a way for us to deepen our understanding of being human.
Why did you choose to make the main character a girl rather than a boy?
She was a boy! When I made the switch from third to first person, I changed her from Benjamin to Ruth. It struck me that being a girl giant would present more complicated issues around one’s growing body, especially given the years in which the novel is set.
Did any of your childhood experiences find their way into the novel?
Not really, though I’ve stolen from my own childhood for previous books. This time I stole from my daughter, though Ruth isn’t at all modeled on her. When Nellie was little, she used to go up to other children just like Ruth did, curl her arm around their shoulders, and ask, peering at them, “What does your name?” She asked with such genuine care and curiosity that the phrase and the accompanying mannerisms always stayed with me.
Can you tell us about Suzy? She made up stories, manipulated and humiliated Ruth, and yet Ruth still cared for her. Are we supposed to pity Suzy and excuse her behavior because of her unstable family situation?
Depending on their own experiences, people will respond to Suzy differently. My husband was furious with her and wanted her to meet a bad end. Ruth doesn’t feel that way, of course. It’s a question I often like to explore in my work. When is a person accountable for being the person he is? We feel sorry for little children trapped with poor role models, and we judge the role models themselves. Though of course once upon a time, they too were little children, caught in a situation beyond their control.
If you could offer Ruth one piece of advice, what would it be?
Hmmm. Somehow I don’t think she needs it.
Why was it important for you to let readers see Ruth as a grown woman in the last chapter of the novel?
I wanted to show that she survived. For me it’s related to the issue of giving her power, making her strong. But she’s not superhuman: she knows she’s vulnerable, and she accepts that vulnerability. As she says in the closing pages, “For now I keep going, like anyone, moving through the years as long as the years will have me.”
Your blog, called Blog of Green Gables (www.blogofgreengables.wordpress.com), chronicles your experiences reading children’s literature with your daughter. How have your readings (and your daughter’s reactions) affected your own writing?
My favorite pastime is reading with Nellie, and next on my list is writing about what we read. The essays I do for the blog end up branching out in all kinds of directions. So they aren’t at all book reviews, but little stories about family life, and how a child’s (and a parent’s) world opens up through reading. When I read, be it adult or children’s literature, I’m always thinking about how stories are put together, what works and what doesn’t, and why I feel that way, and it’s fascinating to have those kinds of discussions with a child too. They are often wiser than we realize!
How much does your daughter know about the story of The Girl Giant? When she’s old enough to read it on her own, what would you most like for her to take away from the experience?
She doesn’t know much about the story itself, but she knows a little about the real people I researched. While I was working on the book, I showed her a picture of the giant Robert Wadlow touching a traffic light, and for weeks after that, she’d mention him whenever we walked beneath traffic lights, stretching her hand up and marveling at how far away they were. I suppose what I’d like her to see in the book is Ruth’s sense of compassion, and her belief that, “for everything that is taken away, something else is given.”
What are you working on now?
A book about my grandmother’s life in WW1 England. It’s a collaboration with my sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and a companion book to an earlier project, The Occupied Garden (www.theoccupiedgarden.com ), which chronicled our father’s childhood in WW2 Holland.