A trio of high school outcasts--Paul, Big, and Small--face the complicated world of predators and prey in high school and come to realize that overcoming life's challenges will take more than perseverance.
Paul Adams is the shortest kid at his high school, and the school bullies relentlessly pick on him. He's become an expert at avoiding the predatory students and spends the entire day wishing school would end so he can escape to his favorite sport of rock-climbing. This is the only place where he feels in control, competent, and free, despite the inherent fear.
In English class, he's teamed up on a writing project with two kids who make him nervous because they tower over him. Paul's rabbit-on-the-run mind goes to work, thinking of ways to escape any inevitable beat-downs.
Lily Small is athletic, attractive, and, despite her last name, is actually very tall. Another kid, who looks almost like a grown man, introduces himself with a long Polynesian name, but says everyone calls him "Big," and he seems to like the nickname As they get to know each other--Paul, Big, and Small--discover they have a lot in common as outsiders in their high school.
Lily, in addition to being very tall, is one of the few black students in school and the adopted child of a white family, so she has felt the subtly of casual racism and sometimes feels out of place. Rock climbing helps her handle the stresses in her life. Big is proud of his Polynesian heritage, his large family, and his large stature, and he embraces his uniqueness. Because of his size, he has the power to pummel any adversary, but he tells Paul that his secret weapon is actually the nice way he treats people.
As the trio's friendship forms, their unique personalities are no longer those of misfits, but complement each other. Paul is timid in school, but conquers his fears as a rock climber, . Lily is grounded and practical, both in school and as a climber. Big is open-hearted, supportive, calm, and wise--a Yoda-like mentor for the group.
Paul and Lily decide to enter a local competition for climbers, but their plans are abruptly halted by Lily's diagnosis of leukemia. Paul is terrified of what lies ahead in Lily's medical treatment, knowing what happened to his mother who died of cancer a few short years before. He retreats back to rabbit mode and can't even visit her in the hospital. But Lily really wants Paul to go ahead with the competition and advises him to team up with Conor, the student who bullies Paul the most. Reluctantly, Paul agrees to team with Conor for the competition.
Paul goes to Conor's house to try to break the ice, but overhears a conversation Conor has with his father, which reveals a secret about his family: his mother is struggling with severe mental illness, and Conor's beleaguered father has no time to parent and sees Conor more as an additional caretaker, rather than a teenager with his own struggles, often directed as rage towards others.
While Paul is used to dealing with every bully's rage, experiencing humiliation, and accepting that as his fate, he experiences a life-transforming change of heart when he sees how an endless cycle of bullying and stress and rage turned inward lead to tragic gun violence involving one of his classmates.
Pulling together things he's learned from Big, his dad, and Lily, and fueled by a new sense of empathy, Paul is transformed by tragedy from a timid rabbit to a rock that will stand his ground.He realizes that he and other students must be UPSTANDERS, not bystanders to cruelty, intolerance and bullying. They need to reach out to each other, help each other, understand each other, talk to each other, LISTEN to each other--every one of them can be part of the solution.
Paul, Big, and Small is about the turbulent, emotional lives of young adults who are struggling with life's challenges openly and sometimes in secret. They learn to overcome them by speaking the hard truths, learning from the unique gifts of others, adapting to inevitable changes, and finding power in their humanity.