Overnights with Grandma

September 10, 2020 § 8 Comments

This Sunday is Grandparents’ Day, a holiday I’ve never given much thought to until this year, when I am without any living grandparents. Losing both my grandmothers in the past year hasn’t just been about mourning these loving, larger-than-life figures. With their passing, I have lost physical places as well.

My mother’s mother died in her Buffalo home, where she lived for over forty years, and where I traveled every summer from the time I was eight and my parents put me on an airplane by myself. Gockamama, as I called her, lived on the top floor of an historic building, with a grand lobby, an old-fashioned elevator, and its own name to boot. Walking into that apartment was like walking into a musty, magical era, from the antique grandfather clock which tolled every thirty minutes, to the oil painting of Napoleon which hung in the dining room. With no other buildings between her and Lake Erie, you could stand at the window, curling your toes into the plush carpet, and see all the way to Canada. It was like being wrapped in a cozy cocoon, suspended above the world.

We’d spend mornings watering her dozens of plants lining every window, then evenings watching Murder, She Wrote (I pretended to watch, while sneaking peeks at my book). I’d take bubble baths in her bathroom, with its avocado-green tile and pink fluffy towels. At breakfast, she’d sprinkle sugar on my grapefruit; for dinner, I’d request her Spaghetti Bolognese. She kept a closet shelf stocked with old toys and a cookie tin filled with my favorites: misshapen wonders made with chocolate, peanut butter, and Rice Crispies. Photos in frames covered every horizontal surface, and as I became more interested in travel myself, she would pull down photo albums and show me pictures of the Great Wall of China or Ephesus in Turkey, places I immediately longed to visit.

Walking out of that apartment for the last time, on the heels of my grandmother’s funeral, felt like leaving behind a part of me. Inside those walls, during our cherished visits, I had been my grandmother’s entire world. I had taken up space in the way only a grandchild can, each treasure of that apartment intermingled with the love she felt for me. My mother couldn’t believe the sofa cushions had become so threadbare, but when I sank into them, it felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Sara O’Leary’s endearing new picture book, Maud and Grand-Maud (Ages 3-7), about the overnight visits a young girl has with her namesake grandmother, perfectly captures, not just the singular intimacy of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but the special rituals and strong sense of place often intertwined with it. This feat is in large part owing to Kenard Pak’s delicate illustrations, whose muted tones conjure a hint of mustiness and whose washes of color exude wistfulness. It’s the kind of book you want to hold to your heart. It’s no wonder I spilled tears onto its pages the first time I shared it with my daughter.

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At Home in the Ocean

September 3, 2020 § 2 Comments

My son’s favorite sport is swimming, but it wasn’t always this way. For five years after he was born, he refused to put his head under water. He was delighted to be held in water, or to float with a floatie, but none of us—not me, not his dad, not his grandfather, not his aunt—could convince him to submerge his face.

Eventually, I got the name of a private swim instructor who was supposed to have a magic touch. I phoned her but she was fully booked. A few weeks later, she phoned back. She had a cancellation on an upcoming Thursday at 7pm. JP’s bedtime was 7pm, so this seemed like poor parenting at best, but I was a mother on a mission, with a zeal often reserved for firstborns. I told her we’d see her Thursday.

What happened next is a story our family loves to tell. While I watched from deck, the instructor, clad in a black wet suit, took JP’s hand and led him down the ramp of the zero-entry pool. When the water hit JP’s waist, she stopped. “So, JP,” she said, “do you go under water?”

“No,” my son replied.

“Would you like to try?” she asked.

Barely a pause. “OK,” he said. And then, right before my eyes, this child with a stubbornness to match mine, threw himself face down into the water.

He threw himself face down into the water. Part of me was overjoyed. And part of me had to keep from screaming, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

My husbands like to joke that this was when we realized that our son has no interest in learning from his family. Our teaching is inherently suspect, probably flawed, because what do we know? This instructor—who went on to teach him very fine strokes for the next five years—was an expert in his eyes, and so he instantly trusted her. (We consider it a major triumph that we did not have to hire a professional to teach him to ride a bicycle.)

Still, I don’t think the swim teacher’s trust was won just because JP regarded her as an expert (whereas we were just flailing novices). Truth be told, she exuded calm. You had only to spend ten seconds with her to understand that she was more at home in the water than out of it. She loved the water, she trusted herself in the water, and when she directed her full attention onto my son, he felt like he’d come home, too.

“The ocean is calling me today,” says the grandmother at the beginning of Tina Cho’s new picture book, The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Ages 5-9), one of the most fascinating and exquisite examples of a symbiotic relationship with water that I have ever seen. Set on the shores of Jeju Island in South Korea and luminously illustrated in jewel tones by Jess X. Snow, the story is about the relationship between a girl, struggling with her fear of the ocean, and her grandmother, a haenyeo mermaid, who holds her breath for two minutes at a time and dives up to thirty meters to bring back armfuls of shellfish for eating and selling. Here’s the coolest thing: the haenyeo tradition is real! It goes back centuries among indigenous Pacific islanders, remains alive today, and plays a vital role in ocean ecology.

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When the Sea Works its Magic

August 6, 2020 § 2 Comments

The value of a change of scenery during this pandemic cannot be overstated. Last week, we spent five nights in a rental on the Chesapeake Bay, our front door just steps to a tiny slice of sand, a bank of beautiful rocks, two kayaks, and a half mile of clear shallow water for wading, before dropping off to deeper water and stunning sunrises beyond.

The entire trip felt like a brief return to normalcy (look, we’re a family who vacations!). It was also a gift which arrived at precisely the right time. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I felt a heaviness descend on our family, the sum total of weariness from the past five months and the grinding uncertainty of the new school year.

The sea knew what we needed. For a few magical days, it drew us out of our heads and into our bodies, then engulfed us in a delicious weightlessness. It gave us expanses of space—so much space—at which to marvel, after staring at the inside of four walls for too long.

The sea didn’t get everything right (we didn’t need the jellyfish), but it reminded us that there is beauty in the world, that it hasn’t gone anywhere, and that in connecting to this beauty we can connect to the best in ourselves. We can be a little looser. A little messier. Smile a little more.

As it turns out, one of my favorite picture books of the year also features some welcome meddling by the sea. It has been awhile since I hailed a beachy picture book (last were here and here), and this one proves well worth the wait. Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary illustrators), reminds us that sometimes the sea knows what we need even before we do.

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Zoe Washington’s “Good Trouble”

July 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

When John Lewis passed away last weekend—ending a 60-plus-year career of social activism and civil rights legislation—I was struck by how many tributes invoked the Congressman’s tweet from 2015, in which he shared a mugshot from his time in prison 54 years earlier, arrested for using a “white” bathroom in Jackson, Mississippi. The photo was captioned: Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Find a way to get in the way #goodtrouble

Another of his tweets in 2018 further underscores this notion of “good trouble”—a phrase Lewis became known for:

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

If you’ve asked me for a middle-grade book recommendation in the past two months, you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about Janae Marks’ debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Ages 9-13). If you follow me on Instagram, you may know I chose this title for a summer book club, after my third graders (bless them) begged me to continue hosting Zoom meetings. The book was not only a favorite of the year for most of the kids, nearly every parent emailed me to report that the story was yielding rich, important, anti-racist conversations around the dinner table.

If you are looking for a book to start a conversation about systemic racism, this one’s a gem. It’s not just that it offers awareness about the bias in our criminal justice system—the story features a Black character (Zoe’s father) serving time for a crime he may not have committed—it’s that it offers hope for a more just world. It’s a story about a girl who asks hard questions, who isn’t content to accept things as they are, and who makes some “good trouble” of her own when the adults in her life fail to step up.

Of course, none of these messages would be nearly as effective if the story itself wasn’t fan-freakin-tastic. This is not a heavy-handed “issues” book. It checks every box of a perfect tween story: it’s well-paced; the protagonist is immensely likable; there’s mystery, intrigue, and no shortage of fun and relatable sub-plots (baking! music! friendship drama!). It’s a book nearly impossible to put down, but it’s also a story packed with nuggets ripe for pulling apart and discussing. Read this book to or alongside your tween; you’ll both be better for it. (And may I recommend you encourage your child to make a playlist of the songs Zoe discovers from her father, because isn’t it high time our kids started listening to Stevie Wonder? Also: Fruit Loops cupcakes. Yup, it’s a thing.)

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Gift Guide 2018: Bedtime Procrastination

December 13, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: Bedtime Procrastination

Kids know they’ve got a captive audience in us when bedtime nears, and they’ve been known to milk it well beyond that second glass of water. At least in me, they also have a sucker for a good bedtime story, or two.

This year has seen two spirited additions to the bedtime repertoire. While they do so in vastly different tones, Stop That Yawn! and Time for Bed, Miyuki bring fresh energy and racially-diverse characters to the theme of bedtime procrastination. Both celebrate a special grandparent-grandchild relationship. And both will have your children yawning—in a good way—by the final page. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. « Read the rest of this entry »

Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid

June 21, 2018 § 4 Comments

Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.

In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind. « Read the rest of this entry »

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Across Cultural Divides

March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments

"Mango, Abuela, and Me" by Meg Medina & Angela DominguezWhen I was eighteen, I spent a few months abroad, living with a Vietnamese family in the beautiful coastal city of Nha Trang. I hadn’t known the family before arriving at their front door, and I knew exactly two words of Vietnamese. The father spoke a bit of English; the other members of the family spoke none. In my first moments in the house, nothing prepared me for the blow that I felt: the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins in the weeks leading up to my trip suddenly emptied, pooling beneath my feet, as I took my first inhalation of the unabated loneliness that would become a frequent companion in the days ahead. « Read the rest of this entry »

Best Kind of People Watching

March 26, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la PenaGrowing up in New York City, my preferred mode of transportation was always the bus. It didn’t matter whether I was going twenty blocks or a hundred blocks. I loved the noises: the lurch as we pulled over every two blocks to stop; the hiss as the bus lowered down to let people off. I loved the creeping pace, which allowed me to stare up at the buildings towering above, or down at the crowds of shoppers swarming the sidewalks. Most of all, I was transfixed by the cross-section of people squeezed in around me, some conversing with their neighbors, others plugged into headphones. Each person had a story that I could only guess at. And each bus displayed an unpredictable amalgamation of skin colors, clothing, smells, sizes, and languages.

Ride a New York City bus for long enough, and there’s nothing you don’t see. It’s like having your finger on the pulse of life. I would feel at once safely nestled into my community and distinctly vulnerable to the uncertainty of what might happen next.

You can imagine my dismay when I discovered, on a weekend trip to NYC with my son, that he does not innately share my enthusiasm for bus travel. En route from 96th to 12th street, it didn’t take long (in his defense, our bus did seem to be stalling more than moving) before JP looked at me with exasperation—and, frankly, puzzlement.

“This is taking forever! Why aren’t we taking the subway?” « Read the rest of this entry »

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