Someone Who’s There When You Need Her

The Care and Keeping of Grandmas – written by Jennifer Mook-Sang, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang
Tundra Books, 2023

Both the words and images of the Care and Keeping of Grandmas, by Jennifer Mook-Sang and Yong Ling Kang, invoke gardening metaphors, although gardening is far from the only activity of the grandma in this book. The endpapers open with ferns and other leaves, and there are scenes of Grandma tending plants.  But tending and growing aren’t limited to this one aspect of the relationship between a girl and her grandmother. Each one responds to the other’s needs, and they communicate those needs to one another with deep respect and love. 

Without giving a name to either character, the grandmother and granddaughter develop organically through the story.  The old woman shows up, alone, to live with her extended family.  The author does not specify that she is a widow, although she probably is.  We see a mom, dad, and sibling in the kitchen, providing a context, but most of the narrative and pictures focus on the central relationship of girl and grandma.  There is no idealization or sentimentality. This grandma looks old, in a beautiful way.  She is strong and determined, as she sets up her living quarters and involves herself in purposeful activities.

The grandma’s vulnerability sometimes surfaces, and the girl always seems to intuit how she can help. Grandma reads the newspaper with close attention, while the girl gently styles the old woman’s hair. In a scene that is poignant, but not tragic, the grandma is “wilted.” Even the most carefully cultivated plants do not always survive.  Her face is deeply furrowed. There is a picture of family members on the wall and the grandma, sitting up in bed, is reading, maybe texting, on her phone.  Gray tones predominate, contrasting with other pictures that feature pastels and brighter colors.  When the girl puts her arms around her grandmother’s neck and they look into one another’s eyes, the text makes her sensitivity clear: “In those moments, I knew just what to do.”

Happiness and implied grief alternate in this moving depiction of the unique relationship of elderly grandparents to their youngest family members.  The minimalist text demonstrates how sometimes words are barely necessary. The pictures of old age, with its contradictions of energetic actions and wearied sadness, are complemented by the portraits of a child who intuitively understands what it means to be old. The girl ensures that joy is still a daily part of her grandmother’s life.

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