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Book Reviews

Bitter and Sweet

by Kyrsten Brooker (ill.); Sandra V. Feder

Grandmother’s Visit

by Betty Quan; Carmen Mok (ill.)

Grandmothers in every culture hold a special place in the lives of their grandchildren. In a busy world, they are often a source of comfort, companionship, and acceptance. Grandmothers can also be a vital link between the generations, passing down cultural beliefs and traditions. This cherished relationship is explored in two new picture books from Groundwood.

Bitter and Sweet, written by Sandra V. Feder with pictures by Kyrsten Brooker, tells the story of Hannah, a child who is reluctant to move to a new city. Her grandmother comforts her with a traditional Jewish wisdom: life contains both the bitter and the sweet. As she leaves behind everything that is familiar – most importantly her house and friends – Hannah at first tastes only the bitter. But gradually she comes to see that her new home has its own attractions. As a welcoming gift, a neighbourhood child gives her some special cocoa to make hot chocolate. Hannah soon learns that it will taste good only if she adds sugar to the bitter chocolate. Reporting back to her grandmother, she announces that you can’t just find the sweetness – you have to add it yourself.

Moving houses is often a challenge for young children; this sensitive story addresses their fears and suggests a positive method of dealing with change. Many references to Jewish customs – Friday night observance of Shabbat and a mezuzah in the new front doorway, as well as the grandmother’s story of immigrating from Europe – help flesh out the commingling of bitter and sweet. Brooker uses collage to provide textured details that speak to the rich continuity of family life in the midst of change. Children will be drawn to the expressive, open faces of the characters.

While Bitter and Sweet focuses on a grandmother’s helpful advice, Grandmother’s Visit explores what happens when the deep connection between a girl and her grandmother is broken. Written by Betty Quan with pictures by Carmen Mok, this sweet, simple story carries a deep resonance and sense of healing that will affect children and adults.

A young girl relates the story of her loving relationship with her grandmother, who walks her back and forth to school every day, teaches her how to cook rice, and tells her stories about growing up in China. Then everything changes. The grandmother dies and the child is confused and lonely. The night after the burial, the mother follows the Chinese tradition of leaving all the outside lights on to guide the loved one’s spirit back to say goodbye. As the little girl struggles to understand what has happened, her grandmother returns to leave a sign of love and farewell for her beloved granddaughter.

A sad and beautiful book, Grandmother’s  Visit takes a straightforward, loving approach to this difficult subject. The stark emptiness of loss is fully expressed, but so is the strength of love and connection, which is shown to continue in some form after death. Quan’s words and Mok’s pictures together create a luminous reflection of how children experience grief and loss. In one image, the child stands with her teddy bear in the dark hallway, fearful and uncertain, looking at her grandmother’s closed door. The feeling of being small and scared is perfectly rendered. The ghost story and sense of spirituality are deeply rooted in the context of a Chinese family, as are the many details, from the patterned rice bowls and good-luck wall hanging to the haunted jade key chain.

Both of these books will appeal to children on many levels, beginning with the intriguing descriptions of the food (grandmothers and nourishment often go hand in hand) and the wonderful illustrations. The cultural references will provide familiarity to children with Jewish or Chinese backgrounds and pique the curiosity in other readers. The stories make clear that the essential, loving relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren remains the same regardless of background or tradition.