Book Reviewed: Grandma’s Purse – Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
If you are a grandma, had a grandma, and whether or not you or your grandma carried a purse, this is the book for you. Vanessa Brantley-Newman’s Grandma’s Purse is not so much about Grandma’s accessories as about the deep well of boundless love and approval that her purse symbolically holds. Brantley-Newman is a prolific author and illustrator. Unfortunately, she received some negative publicity during the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book that Scholastic actually removed from production because of its unfortunate implication that Washington’s slave was happy and honored to serve him.
I cannot defend that book, but Vanessa Brantley-Newman is a gifted artist who has contributed so much more: Grandma’s Purse is one beautiful example. Brantley-Newton is described in the book’s cover copy as a “self-taught Illustrator, doll maker, and crafter,” and that modest list of her qualifications is evident in her portrayal of Grandma Mimi and the little girl who looks forward to her visits. Mimi looks old, in a really nice way! She has lovely grey curly hair,…
…oversized glasses, and fashionable high heels, as well as a batik skirt influenced by African art. She also carries a large purse full of the “magical things” which identify her past and her ongoing role in her granddaughter’s life. Her coral lipstick ensures a big kiss, her perfume atomizer, labeled “mink,” an interesting scent, envelops the little girl in a cloud of “smell-good.” The purse also contains memories of the past, such as coins that Mimi’s husband brought back from Japan. This small article suggest just a hint of a background. Was he a soldier, a businessman, a world-traveler? Brantley-Newton’s choice to merely suggest possibilities but not develop them is one of the book’s charms, as it relates Mimi’s character from the point of view of her granddaughter, who is interested in details of the here and now.
The pictures are brightly colored and give the effect of collage. A floral painted tea set on the table seems superimposed, as does Mimi’s skirt and her patchwork pocketbook. There are spots of fantasy, too, in the form of an oversized caterpillar, which may be a toy but seems to be moving independently. Grandmother and granddaughter sit together and look at an accordion of photos, some in color and older ones in black and white. The endpapers allow us to look at the contents of the purse up-close. Each object has significance: a brush with strands of Grandma’s hair, a book of African folk tales, a flip-phone with the stored numbers of Lori, Kelly, and Nicole, who must be people of importance to be there.
Grandma’s Purse is a lovely visual production, reaffirming for readers how irreplaceable the relationship between grandparent and grandchild really is. Brantley-Newton sends this message indirectly, through the meaning of small things and gestures and the importance that children attach to them and will remember.