If We Were Giants

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Heart, thrills, tragedy, triumph in exciting eco-adventure.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Although it's set in an imaginary world, If We Were Giants is full of rich descriptions of natural environments and the interdependencies within them. The story was first inspired by author Dave Matthews learning about bivouac ants, who build protective structures as needed --by locking their legs together until their whole colony is enclosed within sturdy, adaptive walls. This becomes a metaphor for humans helping one another in interdependent rather than self-sufficient societies.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about family, loyalty, courage, friendship, being true to yourself, and working together to beat overwhelming forces. Also about noticing the differences and similarities between cultures -- and how they affect what happens when crisis hits. Come to terms with bad things in your past, and use them to fuel the good things you want to do.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Kirra, 10 years old when the story opens, is clever, resourceful, determined, loves her family -- and is racked with guilt when her carelessness get them all killed. Luwan, a boy her age whose tree-dwelling family takes her in, is a determined, loyal friend and brother, and his parents, though far more reserved than her birth family, because their culture values self-sufficiency, are also kind and protective, and stick by her at the critical moment. Her storyteller father, presumed to have perished in the Takers' massacre, is a strong guiding influence throughout. Both the tree dwellers and Kirra's original volcano-dwelling community place a strong emphasis on living in balance with nature, and learning from it.

Violence & Scariness

There's not a lot of gore, but plenty of violence, as The Takers plunder and destroy all in their path, including protagonist Kirra's home settlement and her family. With wild hair, strange armor, and angular features, the Takers are scary-looking and appear in some of the illustrations, and they torture, beat, and kill their captives. There's a lot of combat with weapons, rocks, and whatever's available, with drowning, crushing, and broken bones along the way. Some vivid hunting scenes of people sneaking up on unsuspecting, doomed prey.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that If We Were Giants is an uplifting, sometimes harrowing, tale by rock star and environmental activist Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith. Inspired by the cooperative behavior of bivouac ants, Matthews conceived a story of small people who stood up against overwhelming forces by working together, and co-author Smith built an entire world and cast of characters around that beginning. Protagonist Kirra, 10 years old for the first part of the story, 14 later, is racked with guilt because her own careless eagerness led an army of scary invaders called the Takers to discover and wipe out her family and all who lived in a carefully-hidden town inside a dormant volcano. Adopted by a family of peaceable, self-sufficient tree dwellers, she doesn't talk about her past, but when she's 14, the Takers threaten her new family, too. Between the massacres, the hunting scenes, the scary-looking villains, their shiny weapons, and the hand-to-hand combat, there's a lot of violence, but no gratuitous gore. There are lots of positive messages about family, friendship, courage, collaboration, cooperation, clever thinking, and living in harmony with nature and one another. Also about finding your true path and following it even when obstacles crop up.

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What's the story?

IF WE WERE GIANTS opens as 10-year-old Kirra and her storytelling father/mentor -- the only people allowed to leave their well-hidden town inside a dormant volcano -- are returning home from a tour of neighboring villages and storytelling festivals. They're worried, because word has started to spread about brutal invaders called the Takers who pillage everything in their path, strip the landscape and kill the inhabitants. All is well for a while when they get home, but then Kirra, eager to find her own stories to tell, goes outside the walls again -- and leads the Takers straight back to her home and loved ones. In shock and grief, she falls into a river and nearly drowns before a family of tree-dwellers takes her in. Years pass, and then comes word that the Takers are headed for her new home. She's determined to save her adopted family and their neighbors -- but how?

Is it any good?

Inspired by ants, Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith spin an exciting, harrowing,uplifting story of banding together to use cooperation -- and clever technology -- against predatory invaders. "If We Were Giants," muses a little kid, we could win against these ruthless foes. Fourteen-year-old tree-dweller Kirra, whose home has already been destroyed, has to rise above her survivor's (and other) guilt to help the people who've taken her in -- and maybe help them become giants for real.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about storytelling, and why it's a good way to help make people understand your message, as Kirra does in If We Were Giants. If you were trying to make someone understand something that was really important to you, could telling a story help?

  • Do you think you'd like it better to live with the volcano people, who work together and share a lot, or the tree people, who tend to stick together within their own families and take care of their own?

  • This whole story came about because Dave Matthews observed the behavior of ants in the wild, and was inspired to see how it might apply elsewhere. Have you ever seen something in nature that made you look at something in your own life in a different way?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love adventure and storytelling

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