Veronika Martenova Charles’ 1999 advanced picture book, Stretch, Swallow and Stare is equally if not more relevant today than it was fifteen years ago. The picture book follows a band of misfits who find each other by chance and become fast friends. The focus of this book is on three women who have been ostracized by their respective communities because of their physical appearances and unique abilities. All three women are from ambiguous but clearly diverse backgrounds – solidifying the very real social commentary of the text.
Stretch is the first character we encounter and the first to leave her home because the townspeople turn to her as a scapegoat for missing children in her village.
Stretch was not like other people. She was very tall. Not only that, she could stretch her body taller than the tallest tree. Stretch was kind too, but people only saw that she was different.
Soon Stretch meets Ira, a boy looking for his sister who has mysteriously disappeared during the night, and offers her help. As Stretch and Ira continue on their way they find Swallow, busy winning an eating contest:
As Swallow downed plates of pasta, potatoes, and pies, sandwiches, sausages, and cookies, her body expanded like a balloon. The crowd whistled and clapped, but only until she was declared the winner. Then the audience made fun of her and called her names.
Upset and alone, Swallow joins Stretch and Ira and the trio soon meets the last addition to their troop – Stare. Stare has been outcast by her community. People are scared of Stare because her eyes are so powerful they burn through anything and everything she looks at.
Stare – whose face is always covered – is an especially powerful symbol as she embodies the every girl; a powerful girl who possesses such impressive sight – read insight – into the world that she poses a threat to societal norms.
Of course this is a fantasy so their is an evil wizard, children that need rescuing, and a spell that needs breaking but the fantasy element plays second fiddle to the real life trauma of being different that girls and women experience on a daily basis.
The three women act as quasi-maternal figures for the children however they do not fit into the stereotypical roles of the mother. The women each use their strengths to combat the evil wizard and retrieve the children, returning them to their families.
It’s a happy ending for Stretch, Swallow, and Stare but only because they have each other. None of the women are invited back into their communities despite their heroics and they let the children, including Ira and his sister, return to their lives uninterrupted by the “abnormal” presence of powerful female figures.
The characters are the focal point of the illustrations and their expressive features – from the jeering townspeople to Stretch’s rugged eyebrows and protruding collar bones – convey the power of people in this story. The text is plain and straight to the point, relying on simple words and a well constructed story to hammer home the ludicrousy of casting out women based on physical appearance and so-called threatening talents.
This book reads like a feminized folktale and when you come to the end the author’s note reveals that it actually is. Veronika Martenova Charles adopted her story from a traditional Czech fairy tale called The Long One, the Wide One, and the Sharp-eyed One. On replacing the original male characters with females, Charles wrote: “It seemed to me that their alienation and social rejection was a result of their “wrong” body types. As I could perceive of them only from the present reality – our body-conscious, beauty oriented culture – I decided they would ring more true if portrayed as women.”
Charles’ powerful picture book is a must read and a must read to others.