The typical post-World War II nuclear family was sidelined during the political and societal turmoil of the 1960s. Due to divorce, remarriage, and blended families, the 21st century has seen an increasing number of grandparents involved in their grandchildren’s lives. To celebrate Grandparents Day in September, this article examines the portrayal of grandparents and great-grandparents in selected Caldecott Medal and Honor books. A wide range of personages abound, some grounded in family history, others in imagination. The grandparents introduced this month are based on real people or situations.
In the 1994 Caldecott Medal book Grandfather’s Journey, author-illustrator Allen Say recounts his grandfather’s sojourns to the United States from Japan, drawing parallels to the artist’s own journeys. The book resembles a photo album with formal framed images, an effect Say was striving for 1 with his realistic, almost disquieting, watercolor paintings.
The last full-page spread shows a teenage Say, which leads to the final single-page rendering of a photo of Say’s grandfather, which mirrors the first illustration in the book. Say describes this sequence as “my grandfather’s story merging with mine, one journey linking with another to form a circle. The endless circle.” 2 At 16 years old, Say moved to California to join his father’s family. He returned to Japan three years later but ultimately settled in the United States, becoming an American citizen. He explains, “The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.” 3 This complex dichotomy is shared by recent immigrant and refugee families seeking a sense of home and stability in a new land.
In the multi-generational story Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, author Lindsay Mattick shares the story, not of her grandfather, but of her great-grandfather with her young son Cole. The 2016 Caldecott Medal book introduces Harry Colbourne, a veterinarian in Winnipeg who is called in 1914 to serve in the Great War. On his train ride to a training base on the east coast, Henry purchases a bear from a hunter on a railroad platform. It was impossible to hide the bear, which becomes a beloved mascot named Winnie, short for Colbourne’s hometown.
illustration © Sophie Blackall, Finding Winnie:
The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, Little, Brown, 2015
Winnie is sanctioned to travel with the soldiers to England, but when the men are called to battle, Colbourne makes the tough decision to bring the bear to the London Zoo. There, Winnie catches the eye and imagination of Alan Alexander Milne and his son Christopher Robin. The elder Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh were later published, beloved by generations of children worldwide. The pain of transition and loss is balanced with the joy of discovery and love through Sophie Blackall’s child-friendly Chinese ink and watercolor illustrations.
The grandmother that Jacqueline Woodson features in Coming On Home Soon steps in as a caregiver when Ada Ruth’s mother leaves for a job in Chicago during World War II. Ada Ruth and Grandma wait for months for a promised letter and money from Mama. Illustrator E.B. Lewis’ realistic watercolor illustrations in neutral and cool hues set a somber tone in this 2005 Caldecott Honor book. Evocative of rural Midwest life, the images depict a strong and independent Grandma carrying wood for the stove, hunting for possum and rabbit, and knitting by kerosene lamp. While not a doting grandmother, the woman consoles Ada Ruth with a hug, holds the girl on her lap, and begrudgingly allows a kitten into the house. In these lonely months, the girl’s face is often partially obscured in shadow. When the mail carrier finally delivers long-awaited news from Mama, both Ada Ruth and Grandma stand at the open door in full light.
While the author doesn’t consider Coming On Home Soon one of her autobiographical works 4, there are some elements common to her upbringing. Like Ada Ruth, Woodson and her older brother and sister were living with their grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, while their mother left for new opportunities in New York City. When their mother returned some months later, the children moved with her to Brooklyn, as Woodson recounts in her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming.
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, the 2009 Caldecott Honor book by Marla Frazee, is a contemporary story inspired by the Nature Camp Week that her son James and his friend Eamon attended. In the book, grandparents Bill and Pam welcome the boys to their home for a week while the boys attend day camp. Throughout the week, the boys show little enthusiasm for camp or for planned activities at home in the evening. They show greater interest in wrestling, eating, watching television, and camping in the basement. The adults are referred to by their first names, mentioned only on the first page as grandparents. Breaking the stereotype of old-fashioned elders, they dress casually, with Bill in a t‑shirt, shorts, and sandals and Pam in a sundress and flip-flops. Pam successfully entices the boys with food, but Bill’s attempts to share his fondness for Antarctica fall flat, until the book’s surprising climax.
The witty comic book-style front and back covers set the tone for this romp. Throughout the book, the tongue-in-cheek humor comes forth through black Prismacolor pencil and gouache images that often convey a different story than the handwritten text. For example, “practic[ing] quiet meditation downstairs” shows the boys playing video games in a wild frenzy; when “James and Eamon…discovered that a [popcorn] party with Bill and Pam could get pretty noisy” the exhausted grandparents are shown snoring loudly on the couch. After all, a week with a couple of rambunctious buddies is draining, even for the most engaged grandparents.
The book began as an elaborate Frazee’s thank-you note to Eamon’s grandparents, Bill and Pam from the story, with the boys contributing some drawings. It was many months before Frazee decided to develop the concept into a picture book, upon the encouragement of her editor Allyn Johnston, who happens to be Eamon’s mother. 5
illustration © Chris Raschka, The Hello, Goodbye Window, Hyperion, 2005
The picture book The Hello, Goodbye Window, by Norton Juster and illustrated by Chris Raschka, also has roots in reality. Juster and his wife Jeanne used to welcome their granddaughter Tori to their home one night a week. The author explains, “Almost everything that happens in the book either was suggested or almost literally given through things we did a couple years ago.” 6
The book is narrated by the young grandchild, who describes an overnight visit with her cherished Nanna and Poppy. She enjoys indoor and outdoor rituals such as drawing at the kitchen table, listening to Poppy play the harmonica, and helping Nanna in the garden. While Nanna and Poppy are cautious, they encourage exploration and creativity. The kitchen window, the namesake “Hello, Goodbye Window,” is another source of delight, carrying the story forward from beginning to end.
The multiracial family that Raschka portrays is based on the Justers. The author explains, “My marriage is an interracial marriage: I’m white, my wife is black. My daughter and my granddaughter have various aspects of this.” Juster told his editor that he wanted the illustrations to reflect this, “just … to be there as a fact of life.” 7 Raschka honors the request in the playful, jubilant images of this 2006 Caldecott Medal book, using watercolor, oil pastel crayons scratched with a folding bone, and charcoal to create abstract illustrations that explode with color and energy.
These Caldecott Medal and Honor books reinforce how stories of grandparents and great-grandparents drawn from personal experience or family lore give readers a deeper connection to picture book creators.
Picture Books Cited
Frazee, Marla. A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. Orlando: Harcourt, 2008.
Juster, Norton. The Hello, Goodbye Window. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
Mattick, Lindsay. Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. illustrated by Sophie Blackall. New York: Little, Brown, 2015.
Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Coming on Home Soon. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis. New York: Putnam, 2004.
- Judy Hendershot and Jackie Peck, “An Interview with Allen Say, 1994 Caldecott Award Winner,” The Reading Teacher 48, no. 4 (December 1994): 304.
- Allen Say, “Grandfather’s Journey,” Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 1 (1995): 31.
- Jacqueline Woodson, “All About Me: Frequently Asked Questions,” Jacqueline Woodson, accessed 25 July 2020, https://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/frequently-asked-questions/.
- Jama Kim Rattigan, “Soup’s On: Marla Frazee in the Kitchen Interview!,” Jama’s Alphabet Soup, accessed 25 July 2020, https://jamarattigan.com/2008/07/01/soups-on-marla-frazee-in-the-kitchen-interview/.
- Nathalie Op De Beeck, “On Comings and Goings,” Publishers Weekly 252, no. 8 (21 February 2005): 174.
Adesman, Andrew and Christine Adamec. The Grandfamily Guidebook: Wisdom and Support for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2018.
Burger, Kevyn. “Not Your Grandparents’ Grandparents: A New Breed of Active, Tech-Savvy Grandparents Builds Bond and Memories with the Next Generation.” Star Tribune, 26 February 2020, ProQuest U.S. Newsstream.
Cohen, Philip. Family Diversity Is the New Normal for America’s Children. Briefing paper. Austin, Tex.: Council of Contemporary Families, 2014. https://contemporaryfamilies.org/the-new- normal.
De Beeck, Nathalie Op. “On Comings and Goings.” Publishers Weekly 252, no. 8 (21 February 2005): 174.
Hendershot, Judy, and Jackie Peck. “An Interview with Allen Say, 1994 Caldecott Award Winner.” The Reading Teacher 48, no. 4 (December 1994): 304 – 06.
Jama Kim Rattigan, Jama Kim. “Soup’s On: Marla Frazee in the Kitchen Interview!” Jama’s Alphabet Soup. Accessed 25 July 2020, https://jamarattigan.com/2008/07/01/soups-on-marla-frazee-in-the-kitchen-interview/.
Say, Allen. Drawing from Memory. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011.
— – . “Grandfather’s Journey.” Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 1 (1995): 30 – 32.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Group, 2014.
— – . Jacqueline Woodson. Accessed 25 July 2020. https://www.jacquelinewoodson.com.