Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: Following Grandfather by Rosemary Wells (Cybils Nominee)

Following Grandfather. by Rosemary Wells. September 11, 2012. Candlewick. 64 pages. ISBN: 9780763650698

Down at the very end of Revere Beach, where the people never go, the mice of Boston spread their towels and plant their beach umbrellas in the sun.

This is the gorgeous first line of Rosemary Wells’s 2012 chapter book, Following Grandfather, which tells of the bond between a young mouse girl named Jennie and her grandpa, who immigrated to the United States on a ship from Naples, Italy. Grandfather knows all the best places to visit for treats like gelato and rare shells like the queen’s teacups. When Grandfather is gone, Jennie finds it difficult to move on, and she begins seeing him everywhere, and following him in the hopes of seeing him just one more time.

Death is a difficult topic to discuss with very young children. Adults worry about scaring them, or upsetting them. This book is a great way to broach the subject with kids in the preschool and early elementary school age bracket. It talks about not just the death itself, which is handled in a careful, developmentally appropriate way, but also the absence of that person in our day to day lives after the funeral is over. Kids will relate to Jennie’s longing for her grandfather and her subconscious expectation that she will someday run into him, but they will also see hope in the mouse girl’s eventual discovery that the best way to hold onto him is to cherish the memories they made together.

I haven’t been that impressed with much of Rosemary Wells’s recent works - I thought Love Waves was too sappy, and I haven’t been particularly interested in her novels. This book, though, is close to perfect. The description is very evocative, and there is a mood of warm nostalgia that permeates the entire story. This is one of those rare books for newer readers that sacrifices neither accessibility nor beauty in its language. It suits the reading abilities of its intended age group and maintains a high literary standard at the same time. In its few carefully chosen words, it teaches us about immigrants, class distinctions, Italian food, the importance of family history, and the value of our memories.

Christopher Denise’s illustrations do much to immerse the reader in Jennie’s memories of her grandfather. The drawing style is very soft with lots of shading and shadow, which gives each picture a dreamlike quality. It is clear in looking at these illustrations that Jennie is reflecting upon each moment in her mind’s eye, remembering fondly everything she and Grandfather have done together and discussed. Denise humanizes the mice somewhat, in their clothes and mannerisms, but maintains their mousy features as well, which works nicely.

Following Grandfather is likely to appeal to readers who enjoy animal stories and historical fiction. Kids who are close to their grandparents might find it sad to realize they, too, will one day lose a grandfather or grandmother, but those who have already experienced this loss will undoubtedly find comfort and validation in Jennie’s story. Reluctant readers might shy away from the poetic text and slow-moving plot, but avid readers - especially those who truly delight in the beauty of language - will eat this book up.

I borrowed Following Grandfather from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

NOTE: This book was nominated by Mary Machado for the 2012 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, but this review reflects my opinions only, not those of any other panelist, or the panel as a whole. Thanks! 


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