A Q&A with Author John Schwartz
Q: What started you thinking about writing Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All? Can you tell us about the genesis of the project?
Schwartz: It all started with drugs. Well, a drug. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved Humatrope, a synthetic human growth hormone, for treating healthy children who were merely small. The hormone had long been approved for use in people with a hormone deficiency, but this was a much broader approval than ever before. I thought it sent a bad message to parents and to kids: being short is a problem, a condition that ought to be fixed. I wrote an essay on the topic for the New York Times “Week in Review” section. That little essay got a lot of attention. I heard from plenty of people who loved the piece. And I thought maybe I should write a book—not for the grown-ups, but for the kids who might be feeling some of the pressures of growing up small.
Q: Can you tell us anything about the personal nature of the topic?
Schwartz: You're so diplomatic! I'm short. When the FDA approved Humatrope, it was for any boy who was likely to be less than five feet, three inches tall as an adult. Well, I'm five foot three, and now the government was calling me, officially, short. Short enough to need help! I wasn't too happy about it when I was a kid. I grew up in Texas, and a lot of the kids around me were huge. Huge. But I didn't think I was deformed.
Q: Were there any moments in your history that were particularly frustrating, and/or inspirational, about dealing with height stereotypes?
Schwartz: When you're little, everybody's a comedian. In the school playground and the hallways, I heard a lot of jokes and put-downs. "Short Schwartz," which almost rhymed, was considered the height of cleverness, and I heard it a lot. Even as a grown-up, when people hear I'm from Texas, many say, "But I thought everything was bigger…" You know, that gets old. But I can't really call this a huge burden. This is really what I'm trying to tell the kids: if this is your biggest problem, you're one lucky guy.
Q: As a science writer for The New York Times, you see and assess studies and statistics all the time. How did that help you in examining some of the cultural stereotypes surrounding height?
Schwartz: All reporters are supposed to be skeptical. As the old newsroom cliché goes, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." Becoming a science reporter gave me a toolkit that helped me to be skeptical in a whole new way: to check out studies that seemed to say one thing and to find the biases and flaws in the design of the study that mean that they actually didn't say that at all. It also taught me that science can be abused, whether in the name of marketing or for political gain. So as I approached the scientific evidence in studies that height might be more than a childhood annoyance for short people, but that it might be setting them up for failure later in life—well, the toolbox came in very handy.
Q: Can you think of a few shorter-than-“normal” people who inspired you growing up or inspire you now?
Schwartz: When I was a kid, I was tickled to learn that the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, was only five feet, two inches tall. (The Vostok cockpit was cramped, and the Soviets chose small cosmonauts.) I loved hearing successful short people joke about their height. One of our United States senators from Texas, John Tower was under five feet six. "My name is John Tower," he'd say, "but I don't." It all helped me to understand that you could be depressed or angry about being little, but the folks who succeeded found a way to laugh about it—and to disarm others by getting them to laugh, too. It's kind of like having a posse, this brotherhood of smallish people. I smile when I see George Stephanopoulos on television, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg leading New York City. Being on the small side didn't hold them back. It hasn't held me back, either. And it won't hold back the kids who read Short.
Q: What did you learn in the course of researching the book that might most surprise people?
Schwartz: The big surprise was how quickly the supposed evidence that there are big problems with being short fell apart. I figured that I would be giving my readers an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand discussion of the disadvantages of being short. But in fact, beyond having trouble reaching the high shelf, I didn't find any studies that really supported the idea that being short was a disadvantage—even those much-publicized studies that seem to say small people earn less than taller folks. Beyond that, I knew that science can be manipulated and misused, but even I was surprised to see how far people stretched it. I spoke with David Sandberg, a researcher whose groundbreaking work showed that the overwhelming majority of short kids actually cope pretty well with being small. His studies showed that their height doesn't cause them deep psychological stress, and in fact he found that other kids did not see them in a demeaning way. One of his studies, which I describe in the book, is really cleverly designed, and involves asking schoolchildren to cast each other in a play. It's a head fake -- he really used the process to explore the kids' attitudes toward each other. Sandberg was startled to find that his work was being cited to the FDA to support the notion that small kids do have big problems!
Grade 7 Up—Looking to dispel the popular myth that shorter people don't do as well in life, that they encounter far more difficulties, earn less money, and aren't as happy romantically as their taller counterparts, the author breaks down related studies and explains the real statistics behind the headlines and hype. In a style that is funny, accessible, and irreverent, Schwartz deftly handles topics such as human growth hormones, bullies, genetics, and the psychology of being short. Interviews with a variety of experts are included, and the author does an excellent job of clarifying complicated statistics. In this part memoir, part self-help book, and part treatise on why the media and the medical establishment have blown short stature way out of proportion, the author uses his own experiences and those of others to demonstrate how many of the myths are wrong. Booktalk this with Dan Elish's Born Too Short
(S & S) and Joan Bauer's Stand Tall
(Putnam, both 2002) as a fun way to get kids interested in the topic—Jody Kopple, Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.