Time with Nana

The Friday Nights of Nana – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Candlewick Press, 2001

There are many books about Jewish families observing the Sabbath, and many about children from all backgrounds enjoying a special bond with grandparents.  The Friday Nights of Nana is exceptionally poetic and beautiful.  The young girl in the story, Jennie, describes the reassuring routine of preparing for Friday night dinner with her Nana, relating each detail of the weekly event and, by implication, how these become stored in her memory. Towards the end of the book, she welcomes other family members, but the unique love between granddaughter and grandmother has set the stage for family togetherness. (link to other blog posts, Amy Hest interview and review on JBC.)

Amy Hest’s (a prolific author of, among other books, The Purple Coat, Love You, Soldier, and, most recently, The Summer We Found the Baby) tone is quiet, gentle, and affirmative.  Jennie lists exactly what is important to her about the ritual of Fridays.  “Nana sips tea and the tea is too hot and she blows in the old china cup, making ripples.”  The precision of her observations is perfectly matched by Claire Nivola’s pictures, delicately drawn and brightly colored renditions of the day’s events.  The book opens with the girl and her grandmother facing one another at the breakfast table. Other scenes depict both of them in motion: making the bed, polishing candlesticks, taking a break for lunch in the park.  Nana’s task’s and Jennie’s are complementary, divided by generation, with the older woman ironing and the young girl folding cloth napkins.  They both wear blue shoes, but only Nana carefully applies lipstick in the mirror.

There is a sense of both diversity and Jewish unity in the pictures. An Orthodox family walks down the street, wearing the type of traditional clothing that could suggest different time periods for the story. The mother is pregnant and the father is warmly holding his daughter’s hand, holding a shopping bag full of food in the other. They are presumably also preparing for the Sabbath.  On the next page, Jennie, wearing pants, buys flowers from a market with Nana. when Jennie and Nana’s extended family arrive on Friday evening, the two-page spread of pictures shows everyone together, but also divided into small groups: Nana hugs a grandson, two older women embrace as a small child holds on to one of them, a mother takes off a baby’s sweater.

There is great deal left unsaid; readers infer the depth of the relationship through understatement, one of Amy Hest’s many strengths as an author.  As Nana prepares to light the Sabbath candles, a weekly ritual that never loses its depth, Jennie asks her, “Is it time?”  Nana responds that it is, and Jennie notes that “…our dresses are touching, and she is whispering Sabbath prayers and no one makes a peep.”  Earlier, while Nana tests to see if the chicken was cooked, Jennie looks out the window and learns that one special external event will enhance their indoor activities: “Look, Nana, snow!” Hest doesn’t need to add any further words about Jennie’s excitement, which will be easily understood by young readers.  The book concludes with the family dinner seen outside, each windowpane dividing the close-knit group into visual segments.  At the head of the table, Nana occupies two spaces, with Jennie sharing one of them. “It’s time for pie and we’re all here together on the Friday nights of Nana,” but Nana and Jennie inhabit a special space together.

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