by Jessica Shepherd
Child’s Play, 2014
“I’m Oscar and I have the best Grandma in the whole wide world.” So begins this sweet, fragile story about the finite, particular experience of moving an older person into assisted living, and its impact on a young child. Oscar’s direct story offers a linear account of the situation. Grandma is forgetting things and needs more help than the family can provide, so she’s going to live somewhere where there are lots of people to care for her. We will miss her, it will be different, and you can ask questions. Oscar visits Grandma, learns about her new routine, meets her friend Albert, and decides it’s going to be OK.
This kind of purposeful book rarely gets attention beyond its purpose. It may not attract a large audience beyond families sharing the experience it depicts, and probably won’t find its way into regular storytime rotation (though I would be all over it). But there is real art here, and detail that warrants our notice.
Let’s begin with the style of the artwork, fresh and tender and childlike. The images vibrate with the love of family, and reinforce the child’s perspective. Just looking at the book, one feels the sort of security a child might craft for himself. The handwritteny font further establishes this as something experienced directly by a child, not filtered through the wisdom of adulthood.
And within the art are many wonderful details. Right on the cover we see Oscar and Grandma cuddling in a soft, oversized chair upholstered in a particularly cheery floral fabric. We see that fabric, with its bright red, yellow, blue and pink blossoms, over and over, on the opening and closing pages, on the coverlet on Grandma’s bed, as a handkerchief in Grandma’s memory box. And the original chair comes with Grandma and is present in her room after the move. No mention is made of the fabric’s constancy, but the through-line reminds readers that while some things will be different, some things will stay the same. The imagery is not all about particulars, though. Open backgrounds and copious white space leave plenty of room for children to fit themselves into the story, and fully absorb its comforts.
Also worth noting is the candor of the first person address. Oscar, experiencing things genuinely, tells the truth. “Grandma still tells me lots of stories about her life. I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” he says, for example. The sweetness here is pure, and does not come from sugar coating. It would be disingenuous to suggest to children that things will be better than they are. Instead, Oscar gives us his own account, focused on the positive, to be sure, but fully acknowledging the reality.
As practitioners we are aware of the need for books like this to help families through situations of stress and change. How wonderful that we have at our disposal books that support and explain, and do so with consummate artfulness.