First, I need to admit that I underestimated this book. I was thinking it would be a quaint sort of relationship book between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Kind of a “how sweet,” and soft satisfied sigh kind of book. A hallmark card, like picture books can be… I was wrong.
Second, I may have cried a little reading this picture book. If you are at risk of being as moved as I am by stories of compassion, liberation, and courage under contexts of oppression and are going to read this book aloud to an audience (because you must share this book!), you may want to be sure to get that cry in first. If this book was not an e-copy, I would be hugging it still. (Note: I’m not saying it’s bad to cry reading aloud a book, but it can create a lot of pausing your audience may not appreciate.)
Lastly, this is a long(er) review that I actually felt inadequate writing, but when has that ever stopped me. I dread excising parts for my IG post.
Grandmother School by Rina Singh
Illustrated by Ellen Rooney
Orca 2020. Hardcover Picture book 32 pp
[I read an e-copy]
The story of the Grandmother School opens with an amusing role reversal. It is the child witnessing the grown-up hurrying through morning routines in order to be on time for school. The child waits at the door so she can walk the grown-up to school—but not just any grown-up, her Aaji, her grandmother. And she isn’t the only child walking her grandmother to school.
“Aaji started school a year ago. My teacher said almost everyone in the village could read, write and count except for all the grandmothers. So he built Aajibaichi Shala—Grandmother School.”
In a composition that echoes class portraits, we see a classroom full of grandmothers in their school uniforms—bright pink saris. They learn as any beginner does, and like most beginners, our narrator’s Aaji celebrates when she learns to write her name.
Singh moves seamlessly between the delightful and the difficult. On one page, we see men of the village, including the narrator’s Ajoba (grandfather) who “shook his head and said that learning at this age was a waste of time.” The brow of the listener crinkles, but smooths because we learn that not all of the villagers felt this way. On the facing page, anyone who remembers learning to write their name smiles deeply at the grandmother dancing in celebration of accomplishing the same. And then we turn the page to a double-spread scene at the bank. Here we learn that Aaji would often been dismissed and forced to wait while those who could sign their names were given priority. We feel happy for Aaji that she would now be able to “show him,” but how many years of that did she endure?
I felt that balancing act viscerally, of enjoying a hero’s story, the overcoming, while also feeling a sadness and anger that she had been denied the privileges of a literate society.
Singh returns us to the delight of a conspiratorial granddaughter helping her grandmother learn. Their joy emanating under the artist’s hand. We celebrate Aaji’s accomplishments, and glimpse again how such learning helps. If you are looking for a clever way to reinforce why learning letters, reading, or math is useful, this is a great story for it. That said, Singh is telling a story of Grandmothers.
Singh maintains another balance, a story universal to students and one specific to more aged learners. “One day one of the grandmothers fell ill, and the others weren’t able to pay attention to the lessons.” In a beautiful moment we could all be inspired by, lessons were not (en)forced. “So the teacher let the grandmothers worry and pray together,” Singh writes The expression, the posture of that teacher looking at Aaji’s own… We’ll get to the illustrations in a moment. The acknowledgement of age smoothly transitions into a conversation of a life and its legacy. Take a deep breath.
“When I die and my Creator asks me what I did with my life on earth, I’ll say I learned to sign my name.”
“But, Aaji,” I reminded her. “You can also read words like cloud, sky, rain, tree, mango, water, bird, hill, river…”
“Yes, and I’ll take those words with me into the next world.”
The accompanying page reads like a dream-memory, a blue-print. The style will be find an echo when our narrator dreams, her back-drop black like night. The implications of the story move to a different plane.
Aaji will then remind us that she hasn’t needed to read to tell stories. She recounts a heroic tale (that will be referenced in the author’s note) of courage, mercy, and wit. That she tells these stories will be part of her legacy, but that she embodies aspects of the story will also leave a valuable impression. As her life is enriched, it enriches others.
“No matter what story she is sharing. Aaji always ends with the same line. ‘One day I will read you this story from a book.’”
Teaching Aaji to read and write isn’t a wasted on her because of her age (or even her gender). How many more stories might she discover and then tell to her grandchildren before sending them off to dream “of warriors and birds, numbers and words.”
Empowering is too small a word for Singh’s Grandmother School. The story she tells is both relatable and revealing. She chooses the most basic thing we take for granted and asks us to wonder how not being able to write your name can be problematic in a literate society. And then she situates it in contexts that will mean more to the older reader than the younger—a bank, a marketplace; financial/economic institutions. Singh asks a reader, who is enjoying the pleasures of a story she’s written, who is learning and being entertained by way of this very book, what it might be like to be denied access to such a book due to illiteracy.
Singh couches the narrative in the pursuit of a grandmother’s growth and joy and liberation in the words of a child who revels in her and is inspired by her. Grandmother School is a familial project, a community project. When one is lifted and liberated, all benefit. The story ended too soon. I’d fallen in love with the grandmother, I want to see her reading from a book with her grandchildren in her lap. I was anticipating it and the narrator instead goes to bed!?! That’s how powerful Singh draws us in.
Grandmother School also finds a compelling storyteller in Illustrator Ellen Rooney. The first double-spread alone: a scene rife with positive energy and urgency. The golden light behind her, the narrator is perched on the toes of one foot leaning a hand into a flung open door, other leg and hand suspended, her body open, face tilted up and mouth open, calling. Aaji is doing multiple things at once, necklace afloat to suggest movement, and I also love that detail of a foot still finding its sandal. The textures of line, layers, brush and prints on floors and textiles continue in presence and appeal throughout, reflecting the richness of a life and a culture. But it’s worth pausing over moments like how Rooney achieves the gauzy effect of that curtain in the first scene. That Singh isn’t afraid of text means we can take in Rooney’s compositions.
I appreciate the marketplace/plaza scene populated with women and men and girls and boys; but note the foregrounding of the women and food (nourishment), the women engaged in commerce, the woman walking chin-up, the girl on the bicycle. As important, notice the liveliness in the interactions, the sense of community captured in multiple conversations. This is the page about how the teacher decided to further invest in the community by building the Aajibaichi Shala.
I love the side-eye of the naysayers and the grandmother dancing with zero subtly. Admire Aaji’s face at the bank. Note the colors and prints and how Rooney can generate sound in a space through facial expressions alone. You feel you’ve acclimated. Much like Singh’s storytelling, you find a rhythm, begin to understand the characterization, the narrative, but also like Singh, Rooney has more to offer in the thought/dream projections and in the hero’s tale Aaji tells. The effect isn’t jarring, but a natural extension and progression of the narrative.
I’m fairly ignorant about India on the whole, to say nothing of the rich cultures housed within its geographic borders and layers of history. Singh gives me plenty to research. As for the history that inspired Grandmother School, the Author offers a Note. It’s an inspiring story I’m grateful to Singh for sharing, both in the note and in her imagining.
Grandmother School is a book worth owning and revisiting. It has all the things. A must.
This book. Let’s not make the error of only believing this book is just for grandmothers and/or granddaughters or a single gender. It needn’t even require a lesson plan, but I would recommend reading the Author’s Note.
Rina Singh: I was born in a faraway land. Really really far. Not far from civilization or anything but from where I live now which is Canada. I was born and grew up in a small town in India, which didn’t even have a public library. Imagine if someone would make you live without the Internet. Yeah, you know the feeling. However, the school I went to had a library. The Catholic nuns who ran the convent school were into books – books from England. I didn’t care as long as I had books to read. When I was all grown up, I decided to move to Canada. When I arrived in Montreal, the first thing I did was to apply to the MFA program in Creative Writing at Concordia University. And later got a teaching degree from McGill University as well. That’s where I did a course in Children’s Literature and that changed my life. I fell in love with picture books and wanted to write my own for children.
Ellen Rooney: I’m an illustrator, designer, and artist. I’m from the state of Massachusetts, but I now live in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. My first picture book as illustrator, Her Fearless Run, was published in April, 2019. I’m busy working on more! I love graphic shapes, textured colour, printmaking, drawing outdoors, painting. My hidden art powers are released when cutting up paper. […] I love what I do. I get to collaborate with nice, interesting people from all over the place to make wonderful things I couldn’t make on my own.