CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2016
What Grandma Built.
Michelle Gilman. Illustrated by Jazmin Sasky.
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2016.
32 pp., pbk. & ebook, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55017-753-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55017-754-1 (ebook).
Preschool-grade 2 / Ages 4-7.
Review by Valerie Nielsen.
Did you know my grandma built a castle?
Let me tell you how she did it...
When she was young, Grandma fell in love with Grandpa,
and they began building a life together.
First they decided to build a house. They could not have
known it would end up being so much more than just an
ordinary house. To my family it was a magical place.
So begins What Grandma Built, by Michelle Gilman, a Vancouver writer who grew up in Manitoba's capital city. Like so many fortunate Winnipeggers, she spent her childhood summers in the cottage (or "castle") that her parents built on the shores of Lake of the Woods.
Gilman begins the story from the point of view of Grandma and Grandpa who found a beautiful piece of land with a view of the lake and the sound of loons where they determined to build their house "...on a stone foundation that would be strong enough to last forever." As the original family of three children grew and produced offspring of their own, Grandma added bedrooms, bunk beds and lots of toys. She built a giant playground where she joined the grandkids swinging and sliding and climbing and then a dining room with a big enough table to accommodate 19 people. As they sat around the table
Everyone looked forward to lively discussions over Grandma's homemade dinners...
With the family's help, Grandma filled every room with warmth and love.
What Grandma Built was written as a tribute to Phyllis Shenkarow, the author's mother, who died at age 64, a short time after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. After her unexpectedly early death, Glilman found herself discussing her mother's death and the wonderful memories her two young children had of her. As is so often the case nowadays, the sadness felt on the death of a loved one becomes transformed into a celebration of his or her life. Such is the case with Gilman's book, which might properly be called a paean, or a composition in honour of the extraordinary grandmother who is its central character.
Graphic designer and illustrator Jazmin Sasky is an artist originally from Argentina whose illustrations bring Gilman's book to life. She is well-known for her brightly-coloured, whimsical style paintings in acrylic, oils and dry pastels. The art work illustrating What Grandma Built is full of happy apple-cheeked with look-alike characters engaged in everyday cottage-life situations. Sasky's cheerful flower-filled pages fit very well with the text, sending an undeniably positive message about a loving Grandma whose fun-filled lake-side cottage became a treasured legacy for her family "...indeed a magical place."
As a story, What Grandma Built, rich though it is in setting, is missing some important elements of fiction, with the major ones being plot, conflict, resolution and character growth. More than a depiction of one perfect character (Grandma) and a description of her life in one perfect setting (the lakeshore) is necessary to reach out and hold the interest of readers of any age. There are a good many children's picture books with Grandma as the central character. One called to mind is a classic published almost three decades ago called Grandma's Promise, by Elaine Moore with illustrations by Elise Primavera, a story of the special grandmother-granddaughter relationship. A more recent, delightfully spot-on book about a little boy who does NOT want to share his Nana is entitled Nana's Getting Married, by Heather Hartt-Sussman and illustrated by Georgia Graham.
Grandmothers featured in children's stories run the gamut from cookie-baking to mountain climbing to motorcycle riding. They are, without exception, all loving and legacy-leaving, but herein lies the difficulty for the author. He or she must create a believable protagonist who is far enough away from perfection and stereotype to entice the reader. Unfortunately, this is a difficulty that Gilman has not succeeded in surmounting in writing What Grandma Built. As a vividly colourful celebration of a much-loved relative, it is successful, but as an engaging piece of children's literature it is not.
A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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