Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Dave Matthews has teamed with acclaimed children’s author Clete Barrett Smith (Aliens on Vacation) for a middle-grade fantasy novel, EW has learned exclusively.
Titled If We Were Giants, the book follows a young girl who must confront her past mistakes before she can save her peaceful community from a gigantic threat, and reflects Matthews’ work as a humanitarian and environmentalist. Here’s the official synopsis:
“Kirra, a curious, agile, and outgoing girl, lives in an idyllic community hidden inside a dormant volcano. She and her father are the only two people allowed to venture beyond its walls. Kirra is in training to become a Storyteller like him, and together they travel from village to village spreading fearsome tales designed to keep outsiders away from their secret nest. One day, after hearing rumors of strangers called the Takers, Kirra leaves the volcano by herself, hoping to discover her own story. But she unknowingly leads the Takers back to her doorstep, and they rob her of everything she has ever held dear. A devastated Kirra is found by a boy named Luwan and adopted into his family, which lives among others high in the trees of a dense forest. Now quiet and withdrawn, Kirra hides her dark past from everyone and never wants to leave the safety of her tree dwelling. Luwan, on the other hand, loves to explore. One day it leads to trouble: He is captured while spying on a group of strangers. The Takers have returned. To save the Tree Folk, Kirra must face her inner demons and summon all her storytelling to weave the most important tale of her life.”
The South African-born Matthews’ namesake band has sold more than 24 million tickets since its inception, and a collective 38 million CDs and DVDs. With the release of 2018’s Come Tomorrow, Dave Matthews Band became the first group in history to have seven consecutive studio albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
“Having spent my childhood exploring the forests of Virginia and time as an adult with the San people of South Africa, I really respect a life balanced with nature,” Matthews said in a statement. “I’m thrilled to be working with Clete and Disney Publishing to tell a story that focuses on the importance of the environment.”
Adds Disney-Hyperion editor-at-large Stephanie Owens Lurie, “It’s a joy for me to be working with Dave, and again with Clete, on this lovely story about overcoming loss, embracing community, and the importance of living in harmony.”
If We Were Giants will be published March 3, and is available for pre-order. Matthews and Smith collaborated on a video discussing the ideas and process behind the book, which you can watch above exclusively, and be sure to see the official cover — as well as an enchanting first excerpt — below.
Excerpt from If We Were Giants, by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith
Kirra was dangling upside down, her body pressed against the tightly woven net, twigs and leaves mashing into her face. One arm was pinned to her side, but she was able to work her free hand up to clear a space so she could peek through a hole.
A man ascended the trunk, moving with the liquid grace of a jungle cat. His clothing was all dull greens and dirty browns, allowing him to blend in seamlessly with leaf and limb. He was peering up at her through a screen of tightly braided hair, and his scarred hands and feet instinctively found grips for climbing while his eyes never left the net.
When the man reached Kirra’s branch, he nimbly hoisted himself up and withdrew a long, sharp cutting stone from the waistband of his shorts. Kirra was help-less to do anything but watch as he got closer and clos-er.
The man bent over and squinted into the net.
“Oh. Hello, Kirra.” He gave her a little wave. “I was hoping to find the leopard that has been patrolling these parts.”
“So sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh well. He’ll be back.” Mome shrugged and sat down cross-legged on the wide branch. “And what are you doing on this fine afternoon?”
Kirra shook her head. Or rather, she tried to. Being trussed up like this did not lend itself to much mobility. She settled for an eye roll. “Well, at the moment I seem to be stuck in this tree.”
“My, my. So you do.” Mome’s brow crinkled, match-ing the deep wrinkles that lined the rest of his face. He gestured at Kirra’s predicament like he had just noticed she was incapacitated. “And why are you like this?”
“You know why.”
Mome raised one eyebrow in a question.
“You did this,” Kirra said. “This is your net. You caught me. In a trap. Like a wild animal.”
“Well . . . perhaps you should not have wandered so close to my home.” Mome shrugged. “Like a wild ani-mal.”
“That’s hardly fair, Mome. You change the location of your home every month or so. It’s hard to keep up.”
He waggled a finger at her. “One can never be too careful. I’ve seen many things in this life, young lady.” Mome bent down and reached through the holes in the net to clear away some leaves, revealing more of Kirra’s face. He studied her for several moments. “Do you know what I think?”
Kirra tried to blow a stray lock of hair out of her face. “What?”
“I think you have sad eyes. They’ve always told me that you’ve seen some things in this life, as well.” After a long silence he added, “Yes?”
Kirra looked away. “You know I don’t talk about things like that. The past.”
“But we cannot know the future. So what else is there to talk about except the past?”
“How about we talk about you getting me out of this net in the very near future?”
“Oh, my. So feisty.” He leaned forward and squinted at her, then poked tentatively at an elbow that was sticking out of the net. “Are you sure you’re not a leop-ard?”
Kirra just rolled her eyes again. Mome chuckled and reached up with his cutting tool, hacked through a sec-tion of rope, and the entire net came apart. Kirra was unceremoniously deposited onto the broad branch with a thump.
“Oof.” She clambered to her feet, rubbing her lower back where she had smacked the limb.
“Hmm. Strange. I thought leopards always landed on their paws.”
“I’m not your leopard, Mome.”
He tilted his head this way and that, chin in his hand, studying her. Finally he gave her a dismissive wave. “Oh, I suppose not. But you should come to my humble house anyway and share a drink with me. I’m working on a new concoction with honey and berries. You will love it!” Mome talked with his hands and his eyes went all crinkly when he was excited.
Kirra was still dusting herself off. “I would do that, Mome, really. But I need to get to the salt caverns be-fore dinner. And I’m late already.”
She turned to step away, but Mome took her gently by the shoulders. “We have not chatted in a long time, and I have plenty of salt at the moment. How about this: You take as much as you need, and then spend the time you saved visiting with old Mome.”
Kirra chewed on her lip, weighing the offer. It would be nice not to have to haul herself all the way to the caverns. And Mome always treated her with kindness. But still . . . talking to him was like walking through a maze where a Memory Trap lurked behind every corner, because he was also—
“It’s called borrowing from a neighbor, Kirra, and in some parts of this wide world, it’s actually quite a common practice.”
She looked down. “I know about borrowing,” she mumbled. “And I know about neighbors.”
Mome gave her a gentle smile. “I had a feeling you did.” The old man leaned in and tapped her forehead. “I think that a time when you learned to borrow from neighbors is part of your story.”
Kirra turned her head away.
“Come now.” He nudged her in the ribs. “If you and I start acting neighborly and borrowing from each other, who knows? The practice might catch on with these folks.” Mome gestured at the surrounding forest.
Kirra turned to face him again; that was another rea-son she had always liked this man, ever since she first arrived. He spoke to her as a fellow outsider. Like her, Mome hadn’t been born into the Tree Folk, so the two of them shared an unlikely bond.
“Hmm . . . how far away is your new house?”
Mome pointed directly overhead. “We’re practically there. This”—he kicked at the fallen net—“is my last line of defense against all things leopardy.”
He reached up and disappeared into the leaves above. Kirra sighed and followed. She saw his “house” immedi-ately, though it was a pretty bare-bones operation: thatched roof woven among the branches to keep the rainfall away, a single hammock, and a few shelves har-boring Mome’s meager accumulation of possessions.
Soon Kirra was sitting in the guest chair: a bunch of thick, soft moss that had been stuffed into the V created by two branches emerging from the trunk at the same spot. She was able to lie back and relax a bit, holding a wooden cup of the honey juice that Mome had whipped up. It was delicious.
“Okay, this is pretty cozy,” she admitted. “But why do you change houses so often, Mome?”
Sipping from his own cup, the older man tilted his head and gave her question some thought for a few moments. He always did that. Most adults answered right away, even if they weren’t completely sure about what they were saying. It was like they just wanted to get the conversation over with as quickly as possible. Mome taking time to weigh her words was proof that he took them seriously.
“Well . . . I suppose it’s because if you work really hard to build a perfect house, and you spend all your time filling it with this and that . . . it becomes easy to confuse what truly belongs there with what doesn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
He turned back, fixing her with his soft gaze. “It’s the people in a house that matter, not the house or the pos-sessions. Never the things.”
Kirra nodded. Sometimes when he said something, it hit her in the core of her being and sounded right with-out her having to think about it.
Mome glanced away, looking absently at the sur-rounding trees. His face fell a bit as he stared at nothing in particular, as if dismayed by a distant memory. When he spoke again, his voice was much quieter. “And also because you can never be sure when you might have to leave your home quickly. Not being too attached makes that easier to do.”
Kirra flinched as if he had reared back to strike her.
The older man noticed the reaction. He gently placed a hand on her arm. “Sometimes when I say things to you, I can see storm clouds roll across your eyes.” He patted her for a while, letting Kirra gather herself. Final-ly, Mome said, “Will you at last tell me what happened to you? Share part of your story with me—where you came from, perhaps? I may be able to help you, Kirra.”
She just shook her head. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“Everyone has a story.”
“I don’t like stories,” she said quickly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Mome sighed deeply. “They are what make us different from the animals, you know?”
“What are you talking about?” Kirra knew she had to step carefully. Mome could surround her with Memory Traps before she even knew what was happening. This could end very, very badly.
But still . . . it had been so long since she’d heard a new story. Or even heard anyone say something good about stories. Salt was not the only thing that the Tree Folk failed to share with one another.
Mome leaned forward from his perch in the ham-mock and gestured to the forest floor far below. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that the animals are much better suited for life in this hard world than we are. Warm fur coats, sharp teeth, claws that work like a handful of tools, the power to run much faster, or jump higher, or even fly. They should be in charge of everything!”
Kirra might be nervous about where this conversation was headed, but it was always a treat to watch Mome get worked up about something. His eyes shone like they were sparkling in the light of a campfire, and his fingers danced in the air as he gestured to emphasize his points.
“But the beasts do not have stories, and that is our one advantage.” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Stories pass on hard-earned knowledge to the next generation, they gather communities together for the telling, and they show us what life is like in other tribes in distant lands, even make us feel what those people might be feeling. It’s like magic for your mind!” Mome clapped as if his body needed an outlet for all of this joy.
Kirra couldn’t help but smile a little at his enthusi-asm, but she kept it hidden by training her face down-ward, pretending to study the ground below.
Mome leaned even closer, trying to establish eye con-tact with her. “And perhaps most importantly, they can teach us about ourselves.”
Kirra allowed her mind to flash backward, only for a moment. She saw a man, a woman, and a small boy sit-ting beside her around a campfire. The man—faceless, like the others—was telling a silly story and the rest of them were cracking up, throwing their heads back with laughter and clutching one another. The woman turned in her direction and—
No. Kirra shut that memory down hard.
Finally, she shrugged and looked back at Mome. Her voice was very quiet. “And sometimes stories are just for fun.”
“Exactly!” Mome broke into a giggle that made him sound like a much younger man. “That is indeed the truth, and isn’t it wonderful? The leopard may have the speed and the strength and the teeth and the claws, but when does he ever have a little fun?” Mome shook his head, still letting loose unself-consciously with his child-like snickering. “Do you know any just-for-fun stories, meerkat?”
She slurped the last of her drink and handed the emp-ty cup to Mome. “I think I should be getting back home now.”
Mome grabbed the cup, and before Kirra could haul herself out of the comfy seat, he refilled it. “Okay, the past is out. Stories are out. I understand.” He wafted the drink under her nose. It smelled so good, she found her-self accepting it. “Let us talk about the present, then,” Mome went on. “How are you getting along with your Tree Family these days?”
Kirra leaned back and sighed. This was also difficult to speak about, but it was definitely preferable to trying to describe anything that might have taken place Before.
“Things are . . . Oh, they’re the same, I suppose.” She shook her head. “Luwan is as crazy as ever.”
Mome grinned. “I’m glad you two have each other. I have not seen him buzzing around here recently, so please tell him I said hello.”
“Catch him in one of your leopard traps and tell him yourself. He’s the one who deserves that kind of treat-ment, not me.”
“I might just do that.” Mome took a deep breath, and his grin faltered a bit. “And Luwan’s parents? Any devel-opments there?”
Kirra shrugged. “Not really. Loba concentrates on the hunt while Maham does the fishing and foraging. They are a good team. I see them at mealtimes and in the evenings, especially if it’s cold and the family is sitting around the fire.”
Mome nodded. “And they are kind to you?”
“Always,” Kirra said quickly. “They have provided eve-rything I need, ever since the first day I got here. Never a harsh word. Not once. I owe them everything.”
“I know, I know.” Mome held up his palms in a placat-ing gesture. “They take very good care of your physical needs. I’m just wondering, young Kirra”—Mome tapped his chest—“are they able to take care of your heart, as well?”
She gave him a look. “I don’t need that, Mome. Just because I don’t talk about where I came—”
“Everyone needs heart care, meerkat. It’s a simple fact, and nothing to be ashamed of.”
She stared at him. She had not cried since she’d ar-rived in this forest, and she did not intend to start now.
“I know that. And they try. Really. It’s just that . . . we’ve never made a real connection . . . because, well . . .”
“You come from somewhere else,” Mome said softly.
It took her several moments to answer. “Yes.”
“And that makes them uneasy.”
Kirra swallowed heavily. “Yes.” She chewed on her lip in thought. “But doesn’t . . . I mean, doesn’t everyone around here come from somewhere else? Originally?”
“Why do you ask?”
“The families . . . they look different from each other. And they sound different, too.”
“Indeed. The first Tree Folk did come from many places. It’s a patchwork community of sorts.” Mome sighed and poured them each a bit more of the berry drink. “You have more in common with these people than you think.”
Kirra was silent but made a keep going gesture by twirling her fingers in a circle.
“As you know, communities can come to an end for many reasons. Resources dry up, or a flood displaces a tribe, or sometimes, war breaks out—” Mome saw Kirra wince at that, and so he hurried along. “Whatever the reason, sometimes survivors need to find a new place. That’s what brought all these different people to the forest.”
Mome gestured to his little hideaway. “Since they were running from something unpleasant, they decided to hide up here in the branches. Create a safe haven for themselves. Or at least make it so they feel safe.”
Mome let that soak in for a while. Eventually Kirra looked back up at him. “So that’s why this communi-ty . . . isn’t like one big family? Why people are polite but not, you know, friendly?”
“That’s exactly right. They might share when they need to—in an emergency—but they don’t share what’s truly important. They don’t share themselves. They’re too afraid.”
His words, though spoken gently, crashed against Kir-ra’s ears. He might have been explaining how this com-munity works, but he could have just as easily been de-scribing how she had felt for the last four years.
Mome paused and tapped her on the forehead again. “Like you, they’re not only afraid of others . . . They’re also afraid of themselves. They are trying to forget their own stories. And since they’ve been here longer than you—a few generations, perhaps, long enough to see you as an outsider—many of them have succeeded.” He sat back again. “But a community without stories is a sad place,” he went on. “It has no past, and so it has no future.”
Kirra didn’t answer. Sometimes not crying took all her concentration.
Mome looked at her silently with sad but kind eyes. He didn’t say Everything will be okay like most adults did when kids felt terrible. He allowed her to feel what she was feeling, and Kirra was reminded again of why she liked being around him so much.
Finally, the older man spoke. “If you’re not careful, meerkat, you, too, may forget where you came from. You may forget your story entirely, as these people have.”
She sighed heavily. “That’s the plan.”
Mome shook his head. But then he stood and stretched, and lifted Kirra’s pouch from the branch where she had hung it. He found his salt bowl on a rough plank that served as a shelf, dumped the contents inside the pouch, and handed it to Kirra.
“Come with me. Before you return home, I would like to show you something.”