Your Grandmother, Near or Far

Amah Faraway – written by Margaret Chiu Greanias, illustrated by Tracy Subisak
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

There are many books about the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren (for example, here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here, just to include books I have reviewed myself in the past four years!).  To many of us, the topic is automatically appealing, but there is obviously a range of quality among the works that celebrate it.  Amah Faraway earns a place among the best in this category.

Its approach is specific; a real child named Kylie is both excited and anxious about her upcoming trip to Taiwan, where she will visit the Amah she knows through video conversations.  Featuring stunningly vibrant pictures, straightforward and honest words, and an inventive combination of English and Taiwanese (afterwords by Margaret Chiu Greanias and Tracy Subisak refer to both Taiwanese and Mandarin as languages spoken in Taiwan), the book is an immersive experience, drawing on the specific culture of Taipei and the ambivalent feelings of children for distant, yet beloved, relatives. (Taipei also figures in another wonderful picture book, Ten Little Dumplings.)

Kylie should feel comfortable. Every week she meets with her grandmother virtually. They talk together; her grandmother sings and even shares traditional snacks with Kylie! Yet, even accompanied by her mother, Kylie feels a great deal of stress about converting this digital relationship into a real one. When they arrive, the uncanny sense that everything is both strange and familiar both alleviates her worries and fails to resolve them completely.

Children will relate easily to this contradiction because author and illustrator present it without apology. Food is different. Chinese donuts, for example, lack frosting, filling, or chocolate.  Swimming in natural hot springs seems a bit unnerving.  The full-page portrait of Kylie’s face contemplating her challenge, “Should she? Could she?” could be any child trying to summon up courage.

Part of reason why Kylie adapts to a new environment is that Amah loves her home and expresses that joy as she shows her granddaughter the sights of Taipei.  Word bubbles in both Taiwanese and romanized letters allow readers to hear Amah speaking in her own language.  “The day they visited the hot springs? It was a brand-new day.”  Even the joys of a playground have the excitement of the new, as Kylie soars down a slide, from where she “eyed Amah sideways.”  Although Kylie’s mother is present, she wisely stands aside, making it easier for her daughter to build a new relationship with Amah.  The young girl listens as her mother and grandmother speak together in a foreign language, but, by the end of the trip, even this exchange does no longer excludes her. She is now indelibly connected, in a way which any reader, old or young, knows is true. Amah Faraway presents an unbroken and irreplaceable chain between generations.

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