Grandmothers. The image that word brings to mind is varied for different people. To some it means rocking chairs, gray-haired women reading stories to children. Some think of grandmothers as infirm and unable to take care of themselves. But to others it means an active woman with strong opinions who serves in the Legislature, has a career and takes exercise classes.
I chose six books - four picture books, a poetry collection and an anthology of stories - that were published in the past year with a grandmother as a central figure. I found that all except two were of the first kind - white-haired old women who told stories (with lessons and morals!) or interacted with children in reflective, passive ways.While all of the books mentioned in this column are worth reading, they are cause for concern and a more intensive study on the varied roles of grandmothers in children's literature.
"ME AND NANA" is certainly my biased favorite because this is an active woman who more truly represents what I hope children think grandmothers can do. Besides, Nana is portrayed on the cover with mismatched socks! When Mom tells Natalie that she is busy and "I'm going to have to leave you with your grandmother . . . " all kinds of memories come to mind; ice skating, going shopping and picking out a pet kitten. When Nana arrives wearing a baseball cap and waving two baseball tickets, the reader knows this is going to be another adventure. The cheerful illustrations add to the humor and honesty of the delightful relationship of grandparent and child.
The other picture book, "PUEBLO STORYTELLER," has a positive image of both grandparents, but it is the grandmother who forms and paints the Storyteller, the clay figure that represents generations of history and traditional tales of the Chochiti Pueblo. This book is done with beautiful photographs of New Mexico and not only represents active grandparents but shows a rich slice of Native American culture.
There are four books that show grandmothers sharing something of their personal life from the past with a young child. "GRANDMOTHER'S CHAIR" tells of Katie, age 4, and her discovery of a tiny chair with the questions, "How did you ever fit on that little chair?" Of course, the chair is one used by Katie's grandmother and her own mother and is now just Katie's size. It is a sweet story with photo album-type pictures that fill in the gaps of the past.
Also using photo albums to tell the story is "GRANDMA'S BILL." When young Bill hears Grandma identify a picture as "That's my Bill . . . " he insists that he belongs to her. Grandmother then shows the pictures of young Bill's grandfather and tells the story of their life together.
The soft pastel drawings in "A BEAUTIFUL SHELL" add to the serenity of a great-grandmother who comes from "another country on a hill near the sea." After she travels on a big ship with many lights, she finds a seashell that is kept and now shared with the child, Rosie.
"BABUSHKA'S DOLL" is much more lively both in text and illustration than the one above and will appeal because of its humor and subtle lesson. When Natasha demands to be pushed on the swing or taken on a cart ride behind the goat, Babushka explains that she has many chores. While having lunch the child sees a doll on a high shelf and asks to play with it while her grandmother goes to the store. The doll takes on all the impish and demanding qualities of Natasha, running away, whining for a swing ride, and pouting. When "she sloshed the soup from her spoon and flung noodles over her head . . . pounded her fist in the mess," Natasha has had enough. The doll is returned to the shelf (after giving Babushka a wink!).
This is a delightful book, large and colorful with all the markings of a Russian tale, which is the author/artist's heritage.
"POEMS FOR GRANDMOTHERS" is a collection of verses, both traditional and contemporary, which shows the diversity of women. "MY GRANDMOTHER'S STORIES; A COLLECTION OF JEWISH FOLK TALES" is exactly what the subtitle says, traditional narratives told to a young child as she visits her grandmother. Both have illustrations which extend the pieces of literature.
"LUCAS FISHBONE" tells a tale that celebrates life and remembrance as grandmother chants verses about the mystical character for whom the book is titled. The reader never does find out whether the character is real or a fantasy but it doesn't seem to matter because the striking three-dimensional illustrations are worth the reading and reading again!
Books cited in this column:
"Me and Nana" Leslie Kimmelan. Pictures by Marilee Robin Burton. 1990. Harper and Row.
"Pueblo Storyteller" Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith. Photographs by Lawrence Migdale. 1991. Holiday House.
"Grandmother's Chair" Ann Herbert Scott. Illustrated by Meg Kelleher Aubrey. 1990. Clarion Books.
"Grandma's Bill" Martin Waddell. Illustrated by Jane Johnson. 1990. Orchard Books.
"A Beautiful Seashell" Ruth Lercher Bornstein. 1990. Harper and Row.
"Babushka's Doll" Patricia Polacco. 1990. Simon and Shuster Books for Young Readers.
"Poems for Grandmothers" Selected by Myra Cohn Livingston. Illustrated by Patricia Cullen-Clark. 1990. Holiday House.
"My Grandmother's Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folk Tales" Adele Geras. Illustrated by Jael Jordan. 1990. Alfred A. Knopf.
"Lucas Fishbone" Gregory Maguire. Illustations by Frank Gargiulo. 1990. Harper and Row.