- Utopian Grandparents
Devoid of academic expertise in gerontology or aging studies, I have just one qualification for discussing these picture books about old people: having been born in 1942, I am now an old person myself. Like the old people in most of these books, furthermore, I am a grandparent; and for that matter, I also once had grandparents.
No wait, I have one other relevant qualification: I have read a lot of children's literature, especially picture books. And picture books have a sizeable population of grandparents. "Picture Books about Grandparents," a list on the Goodreads website, recommends 272 of them, most published in the last decade or so. One of them, Norton Juster's The Hello, Goodbye Window, illustrated by Chris Raschka, won the Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished American children's picture book of 2006; and in 2016, a Caldecott Honour Book about a grandparent, Matt de la Peña's Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson, won the Newbery Medal as best American children's book of the year.
While some of these grandparents start out by scaring or angering their grandchildren, all of them end up having wonderful loving relationships with them. In children's picture books, grandparenting almost always appears to be [End Page 285] a state of utopian bliss—much more so than parenting often is. Could it be that publishers perceive grandparents as a principal market for their products and believe that they might enjoy sharing a book about how great it is to have grandparents with their grandchildren?
The Caldecott winner The Hello, Goodbye Window offers a prime example. As its jacket flap suggests, it is "a love song devoted to that special relationship between grandparents and grandchild." As Juster describes a young girl's visit to her wonderful Nana and wonderful Poppy's wonderful house from the girl's point of view, it is nothing less than perfection, with drawers full of things to play with, a table to colour on, interesting pictures of the olden days to look at, an enchanting garden, and the window of the title through which those on opposite sides can play delightful peekaboo games. Most of all, there are the always kind, always accommodating, and always interesting grandparents, being eternally jolly as they prepare delicious meals and reveal their mastery of gardening and harmonica playing, and the narrator loves them unreservedly. These grandparents are so wonderful, the narrator ends up imagining a wonderful future in which she will be one herself.
The Hello, Goodbye Window sets impossibly high standards both for grandparent behaviour and grandchildren's enthusiasm for it—a standard my grandparents, my grandchildren, and I have never come anywhere close to. When I was young, visiting the grandparents was more torturous than pleasurable. They liked to live in the dark; so, unlike Juster's magical window, all you got to see when you tried to look in or out of their windows was thick curtains. One of them, my father's mother, Esther, did like to tease children, as Juster's Poppy does. But my Bubba Esther did it most often by suddenly and startlingly pushing her false teeth forward out of her mouth and then laughing maniacally as she sucked them back in again. A lifetime of smoking had given her a voice (and a laugh) in the bass range, and a history of immigration from Belorussia and then years as a widow raising eight children and running a boarding house in Toronto had left her with a strange mixture of Russian, Polish, Latvian, Yiddish, German, and English, words from...