July 22, 2021 § Leave a comment
I’ve been caught in the hot, sticky, delicious embrace of summer (OK, but a little less heat, please), and it has kept me from showing up here as much as I would like. When I’m silent here, I’m usually still active on Instagram, so you can get lots of book recommendations there, but I do hope to get a few blog posts penned in the next few weeks (I’ve got a big graphic novel round-up planned, so stay tuned!).
But today, let’s talk about one of my favorite picture books of the year, an especially fitting one for this mid-summer sweet spot we find ourselves in. We’re perfectly poised to reflect on summer’s arc, having traded the tentative newness of June for the wild abandon of July, with a creeping awareness that the final days of August will bring it all to a bittersweet end. When Lola Visits (Ages 4-8), lyrically penned by Michelle Sterling (fellow kid lit reviewer) and evocatively illustrated by Aaron Asis, perfectly expresses this arc by capturing the smells, tastes, and sensations of summer, as experienced by a young girl alongside her visiting Filipino grandmother.
When Lola Visits does something that isn’t easy to do in a picture book. It imparts a culturally specific experience while simultaneously invoking the universal wonder of this special season. It’s a book that asks us to reflect on the way we experience summer, to give language to our own observations, and to honor the richness of our memories from one year to the next.
For my children, at least right now, summer is the smell of chlorine, the tight hug of a swim cap, and the taste of glazed doughnuts, cherry popsicles, and concessions burgers with American cheese. In a few weeks, that will shift to the squish of pine needles beneath flip-flopped feet, the sharp bang of a cabin door, and a Styrofoam cup of steaming hot chocolate on a cool Maine morning where fog sits heavy on the lake.
For me, much like the young protagonist in When Lola Visits, summer will always conjure memories of my grandmothers, both of whom I would visit every year. Summer was the taste of warm popovers with melting pads of butter, enjoyed under an umbrella with my one grandmother, after a morning spent pouring over sawdusty cases of pinned bugs at the science museum, where she volunteered in the entomology department. Summer was make-your-own sundaes before Bingo night with my other grandmother, the excitement of watching the pot of money overflow with American and Canadian dollars outdone only by the anticipation of going to the water slide park the following day. Summer was a sticky tin straight from the fridge with chocolate-peanut-butter-Rice-Krispies cookies. The smoky smoothness of blue beach glass. The experience of hugging an older body, with its faint smell of talcum powder, soft, spidery-veined skin, and the security of a love that knows no bounds.
When Lola Visits begins on the title page, with a spectacled woman peeking out of a tiny airplane window, then pans to a girl and her younger brother, anticipating their Lola’s arrival from the Philippines. “How do I know summer is here?” the girl asks. Because “it smells like stone fruit ripening on the kitchen counter and jasmine on the bloom everywhere in the neighborhood.”
Lola brings with her a litany of fresh smells and tastes, from the “sampaguita soap” on her skin to the “tumble of dried squid, milk candy, and wooden beads” that spill out of her suitcase. For her granddaughter, these things are every bit as intertwined with summer’s essence as the stone fruit and the jasmine.
We now settle into the rhythm of the book, where activities specific to the family’s Filipino heritage, like learning to bake “cassava cake” or singing in Tagalog, are mentioned alongside ones familiar to most American children, like “goey sunscreen and salt-soaked swimsuits” or fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Some pictures depict the larger family eating or playing together, but most focus on the intimacy of Lola’s relationship with her granddaughter, as they spend time at the pool or don matching aprons to pick limes.
Let me pause to highlight the sheer gorgeousness of Sterling’s prose. This book was made to be read aloud. Take this sentence, with its alliteration:
[Summer] smells like suman steaming on the stove for afternoon merienda and tiny red chilies spilling into sizzling sisig as Lola lets me stir, reminding me to scrape the flavorful bits off the bottom of the pan.
As summer progresses, so too does the color palette of the book, the colors gradually deepening in hue. A hint of twilight cues the change of season in the air—as well as the impending sadness our heroine will experience, once it’s time to take Lola to the airport.
Let me pause again, this time for a shout-out to the emotional heft embedded in Asis’ art. Once Lola is gone—”the house a little grayer” now—her granddaughter stands looking out the window, where saturated teals and greens contrast the washed-out interior walls. It’s as if she’s looking inside her own grief, swirling around her heart.
In fact, Asis’ art is full of swirls, their movement another signal of time passing, of summer’s fleetingness. In the final weeks of summer, Lola may be physically absent, but her presence continues to define the season. Our girl feels Lola in the leaves that fall in the spot where the two picked limes only weeks earlier. She smells Lola in the “mint-flavored envelope” in which she encloses a letter to her. And Lola’s mango jam—fresh from the package Lola sends in return—is there in her lunchbox on the first day of school.
“Summer feels like the last golden hour of the day drifting into an indigo night.” True that. But, fortunately for us, not yet. We get to hold on to these dog days of summer and all their delicious memories a little longer.
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Review copy graciously sent by Harper Collins. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!