The Littlest Big Kid
by Donna Van Straten Remmert


RemArt Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0971095906.
Reviewed by Rebecca Roberts
Posted on 07/20/2001

Nonfiction: Memoir

The Littlest Big Kid is a book written for adults who enjoy remembering childhood. It opens like an enchanting fairy tale and in true fairy tale manner, I was immediately seduced by the feisty, yet innocent child's voice of author (and Story Circle Network member) Donna Van Straten Remmert, as she begins her tale of life in a Wisconsin village (pop. 492) in the 1940's. The stories in this book are a tapestry of naivete, spunk and thoughtful pondering woven together with the wondering point of view only a child can have. Donna has beautifully recaptured her child self, speaking honestly and humorously within an authentic framework of time and place. Again in fairy tale form, these stories are full of life lessons revealed to the reader through the innocent eyes of the narrator as she experiences and questions her way through life.

I originally heard these stories as they were read aloud by Donna in our storycircle. I laughed, reflected on the times and was moved by various details with each reading. Each chapter of The Littlest Big Kid stands alone as a glimpse into the universal past of childhood experience, but it was only when the book was published and I revisited it as a whole, that I felt it's greater impact. The stories transpire from the time of Donna’s first memory at the age of three, when she had to sleep upstairs and become a big kid because her new baby sister needed the crib in Mama's room, and continue through the age of 14, when she becomes a woman as she has a heartrending, thought provoking experience with a suicidal death and gets "the curse" on the very same day.

The weight of the world, as a child feels it, is revealed through poignant thoughts about sin, dying, popularity, worries about the war, etc. These serious contemplations are told with humorous compassion as childish misconceptions are sprinkled throughout the stories.

On religion: "Jimmy says that the only way you can get a sin off your soul is to go to confession on Saturday night and Communion on Sunday at Mass. This is a terrible thing for me because before you're allowed to go to confession and Communion, you have to make your First Holy Communion and you can't do that until you're 8 and it's summertime. I'm finally 8 but it's not summer yet so I pray every night that I won't die until I've made my First Holy Communion. I definitely don't want to go to hell..."

Later, on the deadly sin Vanity: "Now that I know that there's another kind of sin besides mortal and venial, I've got even more reason to want to make my First Holy Communion. I think a deadly sin is the worst of all and I've got lots of them on my soul. I try hard but I just can't help looking at myself whenever I pass the vestibule mirror. Each time I look, I commit another deadly sin and this means straight to hell when I die, which could be any day now maybe."

On the law: "Picking trilliums is illegal. Once I picked a trillium by accident and Jimmy said that a policeman would arrest me if he found out. We buried the trillium in a haystack so that I won’t go to jail."

On sex: "When Uncle Bob comes out to the barn to see what we're up to, he sometimes squirts milk from a cow's udder. We get real silly when he does this. A cow's udder is the same as a mama's titty, you know. It's embarrassing!"

On the war: "It's okay to put blankets over windows if we need to have lights on. We need blankets over the windows even if Mother burns holy candles which she always does because they are for protection. Once during a blackout, I cracked open the window blanket in the bedroom when the lights were on. I had heard an airplane noise and I wanted to check if it was big or small. The second I did this, Joan screamed at me to close the blanket quickly so that the enemy wouldn't see us. All of Black Creek was pitch dark except for the light I was letting out, she said. I felt really guilty for opening the blanket. If Black Creek had got bombed that night, it would have been my fault."

The Littlest Big Kid is also full of amusing examples of a lighter nature with the same typical somewhat misconstrued child's take on things:

"The Pope is infallible which means he's always right, even when he's wrong. I'd like to be infallible, even just for one day. What a blast that would be!"

"All farmers have wild hunting dogs. I guess Daddy is used to that because he grew up on a farm. I'm not used to it because I've always lived in Black Creek which is a big town with 492 people in it."

"I'm interested in far away places even outside of Wisconsin."

"Ring around the Rosary!" From a list of this Catholic girl's favorite games.

As she gets older and more opinionated, little Donna even includes a list of things that she will definitely do differently for her kids when she grows up, making her a much better mother than the one she has to put up with. This is a list most of us can relate to.

Money was tight in this family and the children's lives are full of lessons about sharing, hand-me-downs and monetary spending limits, so there is much excitement with touching and hysterical details, when Donna's father interviews for and eventually gets the position of manager of the new sauerkraut factory to be built in Black Creek.

Those readers who lived during this era, will delight as I did in recalling coupons from Wheaties cereal boxes, The Weekly Reader, washing machine ringers, iceboxes, Old Dutch Cleanser, commentator Gabriel Heeter, and spiffy new blue bikes that cost $22.95.

The view from a child's perspective on life is one of the book's greatest attributes and my reading of these stories allowed me to introspectively revisit my past, while immersing myself in Donna's. Throughout this book we clearly see her dancing back and forth between her desire to grow up and know it all and never wanting to leave the security and magic of "babyhood" behind. Donna's personality virtually leaps off each page and I can verify that the adult Donna I know is the same child I heard telling me her early stories. This book is written with great humor and lightheartedness, but the lessons learned throughout these years are complex. The Littlest Big Kid is both unique and universal.

Donna wrote this book initially as a loving gift of history for her family and close friends. Once the book began circulating, however, she found that there was a far greater market for her stories as requests came from around the country. A second edition is now complete and a musical play based on the book has been written.

Check out our interviews (here & here) with the author of Littlest Big Kid.

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