In My Abuelita, by Tony Johnston, a young boy lives with his grandmother and from the first page he tells us how much he loves her. Also, from the beginning he tells us Abuelita loves her work, and we follow hints as to just what kind of work she does. This little mystery is not revealed until the very end. All five senses are tantalized as we are led through her preparations, along with her cat Frido Kahlo and her grandson, page by page.
The young grandson describes her as round. “Robust…being round gives me a good round voice,” she tells him. “Just the voice for my work.” Getting ready, she hums, she yodels, she sings…finally she “…booms out words…as round as dimes and as wild as blossoms blooming.” Abuelita prepares breakfast of tortillas and huevos estrellados—“starry eggs”, stretches and limbers up. She dons a beautiful gown with red shoes and deposits fascinating props into her bright yellow car, then she “swoops” into work—aha!—to weave stories for rapt boys and girls. (Ages 4-8; Harcourt Children’s Books 2009)
Now the author of more than 75 books, Tony Johnston, is a former school teacher and got her first job around children’s books as a “slush reader” of manuscripts submitted to Harper and Row. Ms. Johnston was privileged to work with Ursula Nordstrom, legendary children’s book editor at Harper. Once asked what her qualifications were for editing books for children, Ms. Nordstrom replied, “I am a former child and I haven’t forgotten anything.” Author Tony Johnston lived for fifteen years in Mexico and sprinkles this lively text with Spanish.
The illustrations by Yuyi Morales are highly textured paintings and three-dimensional, puppet-like characters, and they are also influenced by her Mexican heritage. Awards seem to have rained down on her work—including the Pura Belpre award. I think kids of any heritage will love this story and the pictures will impel many to pull out the glitter and glue for a glitzy textural masterpiece destined for a place of honor—on the fridge?
Abuelita’s face, described by her grandson as “crinkled as a dried chile,” reminds me of an old-fashioned craft I mastered as a child—“apple head dolls” that “aged” over the course of several weeks into wrinkled, brown little faces full of character. My friends and I found it fascinating to observe the transformation over several weeks and added snow white hair made from cotton balls and bright blue eyes using colored pins. We thought they were beautiful.
Try apple head dolls with these easy instructions and have a chat with a child about how normal it is for people to develop those lines and wrinkles while living a full life.
This joy-filled little book can lead to great discussions about getting older around topics often ignored—the work and vocational interests of older adults. It’s not often that a grandparent is portrayed as employed or even engaged in volunteer work they find fulfilling, despite the fact that many older adults would willingly share their passion for either current or past work with a little encouragement. So ask the questions, and someone, write down the answers. You won’t be sorry.
Grandparents raising grandchildren
More than 5.8 million children are living with grandparents. Do you know any “grandfamilies?” Let them know about this comprehensive guide for grandparents raising grandkids—everything from the basics of what children need, to legal issues, health, education, and also family challenges such as a parent’s drug addiction or death. It is a collaboration of AARP, Generations United and other organizations. Read my past blog post to learn more about Generations United.