Bridging Cultures: Sitti’s Secrets and Grandfather Counts

Use your “own experiences in everyday surroundings as a bridge to connect with faraway family members,” says author Alayne Kay Christian. Those words of advice from a long distance grandmother in the trenches also holds true for grandparents when they come together with their faraway grandchildren.

In Sitti’s Secrets and Grandfather Counts the grandparents and grandchildren do not even share a common language, yet they forge warm intergenerational ties.



Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shibab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Ages 4-8; Paw Prints, 2009)

Young Mona lives in America with her parents and her grandmother, her Sitti, lives far away in the Mid East. Mona cannot speak her grandmother’s language and Sitti cannot speak hers, but their connection grows loving and strong– cemented by a visit to Sitti’s Palestinian village where they communicate by signs, hums and claps.

In Sitti’s home Mona joins her in her daily routines, a simple life close to nature and the care of house and family. She is entranced by tasks like baking bread in a clay oven and hanging the wash out to dry on the flat rooftop.

The beautiful illustrations by Nancy Carpenter bathe the village in the bright sunlight of that part of the world. Sitti’s secret is revealed when she removes her headscarf and allows Mona to brush her hair—her long hair is striped with white and Mona thinks it is beautiful.24559-1

Mona is aware of the precarious state of the relationship between Arabs and Americans. Upon her return to America she writes a letter to the President focused on the similarities between people living far apart and her wish for peace.


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Grandfather Counts by Andrea Cheng  Illustrations by Ange Zhang (Ages 6-8; Lee and Low Books, 2000)

Young Helen’s Chinese grandfather, Gong Gong, moves to America to live with her family and initially Helen is annoyed and disturbed. He is a stranger to her, he takes her bedroom, and they don’t even speak the same language. Her grandfather has much to get used to in their home and in America.

Soon Helen realizes that just like her, Gong Gong enjoys watching for the trains that roll by close to the house, and waving at the engineer. Before long they are sitting together on the wall behind their home and counting the cars on the train—Grandfather in Chinese and Helen in English.

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Author Andrea Cheng shows us a lovely camaraderie developing as they each teach the other to count to eight, and it continues with sharing words in both languages.

The illustrations by Ange Zhang show this bi-racial family coming together in warm and wonderful ways as the generations begin to understand each other.

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My grandparents also lived on another continent and I saw them only every few years, yet amazingly I count those relationships as among the most significant of my life.

Like Sitti’s Secrets and Grandfather Counts, it was the simple day to day rituals that grounded our interactions—tasks like visiting the bakery and butcher with baskets in hand.

We were aided by a common language which made written letters key to our connections. There were no emails, faxes, or Facebook in those days—even long distance phone calls were never used unless it was an emergency.

I called my Gran, Katie, only once— I was in my twenties by then and a sixth sense compelled me to make the long distance call despite her apparent health and a pending visit. I’m forever grateful that I did, as sadly she passed away that very night. But I had the opportunity to tell her how much I loved her–across the miles.

978-0981493800Author Alayne Kay Christian shares many resources for long distance grandparents on her website. Read my review of her picture book Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa.)

Illustrations from Grandfather  Counts © Ange Zhang. Used by permission of Lee & Low Books Inc.

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2 Responses to Bridging Cultures: Sitti’s Secrets and Grandfather Counts

  1. Nancy Shaw says:

    Naomi Nye is a treasure. Thank you for featuring Sitti’s Secrets.

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