Aug 5, 2021

Grandpas: Priceless Histories That Shape Lives

I'll begin with a brief grandpa story of my own, one that I just recently learned. My family roots on Mom's side are firmly anchored in Appalachia, with the rich voices of that region and deep storytelling traditions providing fibers that weave throughout my writing. A conversation with my older sister revealed a story about our Grandpa that I had never heard or had somehow forgotten. 

Grandpa turned eighty shortly before his death, but he was still living alone in a little four-room house he had built  at age seventy-five (with the help of friends and a grandson) on the side of a steep hill. It was exactly what he needed to remain independent. It lacked indoor plumbing, but the front porch faced a well-traveled road for waving at folks. The area produced frequent company and conversation, occupying his porch rockers in all kinds of weather. He faithfully worshipped at the church in the "holler". There the congregation had a practice that members would celebrate their birthdays by donating their "age number" on the nearest Sunday. In Grandpa's case, he produced his extra donation of eighty cents. That was a matter of pride, not worry, since most there lived at a similar edge of solvency and sustenance with a full commitment to their beliefs and community. 

TUNDRA Books, Canada, 2021

I learned about Grandpa's story while I was planning this post featuring two important new picture books starring grandfathers and grandsons. The first is also rural: ON THE TRAPLINE, a memoir-inspired story written by David A. Robertson and illustrated by the award-winning and immensely talented artist, Julie Flett

Robertson incorporates vocabulary from his Cree heritage, specifically the Swampy Cree language, easily understood in context and purposefully used to strengthen the depth and bond of the remembered trip he took with his grandpa to the "trapline". As he states in the author note, that journey was a homecoming for him as Cree man and for his grandpa it was a journey home. 

Flett's characteristic art elements of subdued earthy tones, slightly abstracted yet expressive characters, and  immersive scenes invite readers to accompany this quietly loving pair through their cultural homeland practices, With storytelling language that is direct and has a gentle momentum throughout, with characters often facing away from readers, we are led alongside this pair guiding the way into the past, present, and future of the Swamp Cree people. We readers are provided the privilege of learning with the boy. This shared experience deserves a wide and openhearted audience, one that can readily recognize ourselves in the individuals, their relationship, and the value of generational connections- at both ends of those generations. 

Lee & Low Books, 2021

is written by Mark Karlins and illustrated by Nicole Wong.This grandfather (poet Eto) and grandson (Kiyoshi) are introduced in the kitchen of their urban home as Eto's delicate brush and ink strokes flick a lovely poem onto rice paper:

"The dripping faucet

Takes me back to my old home.

Raindrops on frog pond."

Kyoshi's simple question launches this daylong stroll of discovery throughout their urban area, with Eto inspired to generate poems from sounds, sights, activity, and feelings along the way. Kiyoshi knows that there is purpose to their shared journey, and does young Richard in the picture book above. 

Questions come naturally but do not pepper or pester the text in either case, and the grandfathers are not intent on direct instruction or dissertation. Instead, a nod of recognition or acceptance, a tilt of body posture indicate moments in which their bonds are growing with each boy's increased awareness of truths, heart, and history from the grandfathers depths. In Kiyoshi's case, his expansive understanding of poetry on the final pages reveal that poems come from the world around us and from the feelings in our hearts. Eto elevates that insight with this:

"Yes, and they come from the way the two come together."  

Not unlike the way the cross-generational lives coming together, in both picture books, elevates their relationships into a kind of poetry.

The author addresses the HAIKU form with simplicity and encouragement in a back note.

I hope that these two titles (and my opening note) will motivate you to share stories among your family and friends, not assuming that what you know/remember about those now gone are the only stories available to you. If you are privileged to have elders in your lives (or if you find that YOU are now the elder among your connections), make time and space and a structured welcome to infuse your relationships with quiet opportunities, like these, to merge meaning across generations.

And if these have you in the mood for more grandparent stories, I've reviewed others HERE,HERE, HERE, and HERE


  1. I've read Kiyoshi's Walk and just requested On the Trapline from my library. Thanks for the recommendations - and a thoughtful post tying them, and life experiences, together.

    1. Thanks for reading, Pat. I had not intended to review these two in a single post, but after reading them I was deeply affected by the lasting impact of time spent with a grandparent, whether as a full-time caregiver or an intermittent companion. Both provide lasting bounds and memories.


Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.