Fictional Caldecott grandparents reveal interesting and surprising personalities. While the stories are imaginary, some of the characters are inspired by admired grandparents and mentors.
Song and Dance Man, by Karen Ackerman and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, introduces children to the bygone era of vaudeville. The first image of the protagonist appears opposite the title page: a grinning older man, sunken in a stuffed chair, a book dangling from one hand. When three grandchildren arrive, they proclaim that this unassuming figure is a song and dance man and follow Grandpa to the attic, where dance shoes, show clothes, and props transform him.
Dynamic diagonal lines create energy, while in almost every spread, an object or two swings precariously or is on the verge of tumbling to the ground. Gammell uses a loose realistic style and spirited colored pencil drawings in this 1989 Caldecott Medal book. When Grandpa concludes his tap dance finale, awash in color, his effusive grandchildren surround the wistful performer and wonder if he misses “the song and dance days.”
In another story that hearkens to the past, author-illustrator Lane Smith explores the relationship between a boy and his great-grandfather in Grandpa Green, a 2012 Caldecott Honor book. Smith uses an unusual array of media in his cartoon and abstract illustrations: brush and waterproof India ink, watercolor, oil paint, water-based varnish, and digital paint.¹ The flat illustrations impart a nostalgic feel for what Smith describes as “a strong 1970s vibe,”² fitting for a tender story of memory, loss, and love.
Through living sculptures in a topiary garden, a boy traces an elder gardener’s life. Along the way, he picks up objects left behind by Grandpa Green because “Now he’s pretty old and he sometimes forgets things…” When the boy meets up with his great-grandfather near the end of the book, the man is completing a sculpture of the boy, showcased in a gatefold of the wondrous garden. A final single-page illustration shows the boy creating a topiary sculpture of Grandpa Green.
Two recent Caldecott Honor books highlight modern independent urban grandmothers. In Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, a boy and his nana leave church on a rainy day to take the bus down Market Street. CJ’s questions and comments indicate that he and Nana make this trip regularly to its final stop at the soup kitchen where they have come to volunteer. Nana answers his questions directly to deepen his understanding of the world. She shows her grandson compassion in her interactions with bus riders and soup kitchen diners.
While Matt de la Peña “drew on [my Dad’s] quiet wisdom when I wrote Nana’s dialogue,”³ illustrator Christian Robinson found inspiration in the grandmother who raised him. The woman in the story looks like his grandmother, and he dedicates the book to her. He also honors his nephew Basil by inserting his birthday as the bus number 0923.4 In this 2016 Caldecott Honor book, the artist creates the dynamic cartoonlike illustrations with acrylic paint and collage, using some digital manipulation. Page design varies from smaller vignettes with rough borders to full bleed double-page spreads. Most backgrounds are applied with broad brush strokes, from dull green of the bus interior to brilliant blue when CJ is carried away by music. Robinson’s candid depiction of the city and its residents complement de la Peña’s earnest text, for which the author received the Newbery Medal.
illustration © Christian Robinson, Last Stop on Market Street, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015
In Nana in the City, a 2015 Caldecott Honor book, author-illustrator Lauren Castillo presents a grandmother who has moved to a new apartment in New York City. While she is energized by the environment, her visiting grandson finds the city “busy, loud, and filled with scary things.” To embolden him, Nana knits a nubby red cape for the child to wear for the next day’s activities. Feeling a new sense of bravery, the boy ventures out with Nana to discover that he now finds the city busy, loud, and “filled with extraordinary things!”
Grainy and thick lines dominate Castillo’s illustrations, achieved when she uses a printer to enlarge small drawings onto watercolor paper. Initially, the city and its people are bathed in greys and other neutral watercolor shades; reds and golds are threatening, except for Nana’s fetching outfit. When the boy later dons his red cape, the warm colors of his surroundings exude newfound excitement. Castillo wrote the book to honor two significant women in her life: her grandmother, whom she visited in New York during childhood summers, and her late editor Frances Foster, “who was like family to me in New York City….and was a wonderful mentor and friend. I aimed to capture her wise and gentle spirit in the character of Nana.”5
illustration © Lauren Castillo, Nana in the City, Clarion Books, 2014
The importance of family stories drives Alma and How She Got Her Name, a 2019 Caldecott Honor book by author-illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal. When Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela expresses her dismay over her long name, her father pulls out a photo album with the girl’s paternal grandmother, great grandmother, paternal grandfather, great-aunt, and maternal grandmother. These talented, adventurous, and inquisitive relatives have qualities that Alma admires and recognizes in herself. When her father finally divulges the origin of her first name, Alma beams with pride. Martinez-Neal’s debut book as an author-illustrator concludes with “A Note from Juana,” where she confides that she was not fond of her name when growing up in Peru, but later appreciated it after moving to the United States.
Soft black and grey cartoon-style drawings are created with graphite, colored pencils, and print transfers on handmade textured paper, with spare use of muted reds and blues. Plucky Alma shows strength and confidence in her striped leggings, a pattern replicated in the endpapers.
All the grandparents discussed depict adoring relatives. However, in her first picture book, author-illustrator Vera Brosgol breaks children’s literature convention by featuring an unappealing adult protagonist with a cantankerous personality and skull-like face. The original folktale Leave Me Alone!, a 2017 Caldecott Honor book, shows the woman’s small house filled beyond capacity each day when thirty active grandchildren arrive, leaving her no opportunity to do “some serious knitting.” Finally, she packs a sack in exasperation and trots out of the village shouting, “Leave me alone!” to her adult children. Despite unexpected diversions, the grandmother completes her task and returns home to reveal her endearing side, distributing hand-knit sweaters to her jubilant young charges. Brosgol’s ink and watercolor illustrations provide humor and elements of surprise. Autumn colors reinforce the sense of urgency in the woman’s mission to prepare her grandchildren for winter.
illustration © Vera Brosgol, Leave Me Alone!, Roaring Brook Press, 2016
The depictions of grandparents in Caldecott Medal and Honor books introduce readers to a compelling cast of characters. Whether fictional or inspired by loved ones, the grandparents are engaged with or have left a legacy to their grandchildren. These appealing picture books recognize the active roles that grandparents play in the lives of children, roles that continue to expand as American families evolve.
Picture Books Cited
Ackerman, Karen. Song and Dance Man. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. New York: Knopf: 1988.
Brosgol, Vera. Leave Me Alone! New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.
Castillo, Lauren. Nana in the City. Boston: Clarion, 2014.
de la Peña, Matt. Last Stop on Market Street. Illustrated by Christian Robinson. New York: Putnam, 2015.
Martinez-Neal, Juana. Alma and How She Got Her Name. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2018.
Smith, Lane. Grandpa Green. New York: Roaring Brook, 2011.
- Jennifer M. Brown, “A Garden of Memories,” Curriculum Connections, 2 August 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20120519131956/http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/newsletters/newsletterbucketcurriculumconnections/890968 – 442/a_garden_of_memories.html.csp.
- Burgin Streetman, “Meet Lane Smith: Part Two,” Vintage Kids’ Books My Kids Love, 2 October 2011, http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2011/10/meet-lane-smith-part-two.html
- Matt de la Peña, “Newbery Medal Acceptance,” Horn Book Magazine 92, no. 4 (2016): 62.
Christian Robinson, (presentation, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, 17 May 2016).
- John Schumacher, “Caldecott Honoree Lauren Castillo,” Watch. Read. Connect, 23 February 2015, http://mrschureads.blogspot.com/2015/02/caldecott-honoree-lauren-castillo.html.
Brown, Jennifer M. “A Garden of Memories.” Curriculum Connections. August 2, 2011. https://web.archive.org/web/20120519131956/http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/newsletters/newsletterbucketcurriculumconnections/890968 – 442/a_garden_of_memories.html.csp.
de la Peña, Matt. “Newbery Medal Acceptance.” Horn Book Magazine 92, no. 4 (2016): 56 – 64.
Robinson, Christian. Presentation at St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, 17May 2016.
Schumacher, John. “Caldecott Honoree Lauren Castillo.” Watch. Read. Connect. 23 February 2015. http://mrschureads.blogspot.com/2015/02/caldecott-honoree-lauren-castillo.html.
Streetman, Burgin. “Meet Lane Smith: Part Two.” Vintage Kids’ Books My Kids Love. 2 October 2011. http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2011/10/meet-lane-smith- part-two.html.