CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 38. . . .June 9, 2017
Whether she is called Grandma, Baba, Kohkom, Grandmére, Lola, Nonna, Yaya, Nana, Oba-Chan, Oma, Abuela, or any other name, grandmothers are special. There is an old Welsh saying that “perfect love only comes with a grandchild”, and this book celebrates that special love. Although “Baba” () is the Ukrainian word for “Grandmother”, the front cover depicts grandmothers of every ethnicity, each of them enjoying the company of her grandson or granddaughter. In the centre of that cover illustration is the Baba of the story, hugging her granddaughter. She is a “traditional” Baba, wearing a “babushka”, the traditional headscarf of a married woman, (as described in Marion Mutala’s earlier trilogy of Baba’s Babushka stories), and an embroidered blouse. Published in 2017, the year after the Government of Saskatchewan proclaimed 2016 as the “year of Saskatchewan Ukrainians”, the “Author’s Note” offers Mutala’s dedication of the book, not only to the Ukrainian pioneers who emigrated to Canada from Ukraine, first arriving in 1891, but also “to women from all cultures, especially those who chose to make their homes on the Canadian prairies, as did [her] late baba, Tessie (Woznakowski) Dubyk, and [her] late matya, Baba Sophie (Dubyk) Mutala.” Wherever their origin, these women would have faced a life full of challenges and change: economic, social, cultural. The Baba who is the central figure of this story is the Baba and Pra-Baba (Great-Grandmother) of my and Mutala’s age cohort; those babas might have maintained traditional dress and traditions which they brought with them from Ukraine, even as they lived in 20th century Canada.
But, this is not a story of hardship. Olha Tkachenko’s illustrations are soft and warm, like a grandmother’s hug. The story of Baba and her granddaughter is told in a series of gentle rhymes, each page bordered with the geometric cross-stitch patterns of traditional Ukrainian embroidery, and each rhyme ends with the request, “More babas, please!” Baba has many roles: she’s the source of hugs, smiles, treats, and Ukrainian “soul food” ( perogies – i.e. varenyky, as they are traditionally called - borscht, and buns). And, regardless of your ethnic background, breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack with your grandmother can be special. I still remember being a little girl, and getting dressed up to go to lunch with my Baba: our favourite place was the “Valley Room” on the 4th floor of Eaton’s Department Store in Winnipeg, MB.
More importantly, Baba is there for “emotional rescue”:
Time passes, and Baba’s granddaughter grows up. Towards the end of the book, she’s a young woman, but, sitting in her bedroom, she looks fondly at a framed photo of Baba and decides to pick up her phone (a corded land-line – a relic from the last century when Mutala would have been a young woman), to call her Baba to say “dyakuyu!” (Thank you), and to tell her that she loves Baba “through and through”. And just as grandchildren grow up, so grandmothers grow older. The final page depicts the same grandmothers and grandchildren seen on the book’s cover and opening page. The grandmothers are greyer and frailer, but the love is still there. Sadly, though, there’s one grandson, standing forlornly, holding the teddy bear of his childhood. His grandmother is no longer here on this earth, to hold and to hug.
More Babas, Please! has a decidedly Ukrainian context, but the story is one that ultimately transcends boundaries of culture. It’s definitely a book for reading to a grandchild sitting beside you or to a young audience who will enjoy the simple rhymes of each page. It’s unpaginated, but, for the intended audience, that’s probably not an issue. As in her previous works, Mutala has provided a glossary of the specific Ukrainian words included in the text, and the end-papers of the book are decorated with the word for “grandmother” in a plethora of languages. Mutala also provides her Baba Sophie’s Borscht Recipe, and the sharing of a family recipe is its own special treat. The Baba of this book is a baba from a recently past era, and their ranks are disappearing rapidly. The Babas who are my friends and contemporaries are ladies who go to yoga classes, travel extensively, and who wear their traditional embroidered blouses only on special occasions. But, those same Babas also feed their grandchildren special treats, are a source of endless hugs, and yes, teach them the basics of Ukrainian language and cultural continuity. Babas are, indeed, the best!
More Babas, Please! is a worthwhile acquisition for elementary school libraries and resource collection in schools which offer Ukrainian language programing, and for public libraries serving communities with significant Ukrainian-Canadian populations. But, all children need to know that grandmothers are important, regardless of their background and heritage, and the book might be a good springboard to the sharing of all those special things that grandmothers do for their grandchildren. As well, purchase of the book is a charitable act as a percentage of the sales of the book will be donated to the Stephen Lewis Foundation which assists African grandmothers to care for grandchildren, orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB, where she is not a Baba, but proud to be a “Titka” (Ukrainian for “Aunt”) to her niece and nephew, and “Pani Joanne” to her friends’ grandchildren, nieces and nephews (in Ukrainian, “Mrs. Joanne”, the polite way for a younger person to address a lady older than him or herself).
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