In many stories, grandparents fall into categories of benevolent cookie dispensers, terrifying rule enforcers, or wise but enigmatic relics of a lost age. To be sure, not all real or literary grandparents fit those particular molds. But in our cultural iconography, grandparents (and older people in general) are too often reduced to supporting characters in the adventures of the younger people around them.
Luckily, we’ve recently seen a remarkably rich selection of books that meaningfully subvert those tropes. From Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s spectacular ode to the power of art in bringing people together to the Fan Brothers’ celebration of the bonds that connect one generation to the next after loss to Oge Mora’s warm-hearted tribute to the tradition of sharing food in her family, last year brought a bounty of books that dug deep into the ways our intergenerational relationships shape who we become in the world.
This season, a trio of quirky books from creators based in Europe poses a slightly different question. What if our grandparents aren’t actually defined by their relationships to us at all? What if they even (gasp!) have lives and passions and quirks of their own?
Releasing this Tuesday, Encyclopedia of Grannies from French author Eric Veillé zooms in specifically on those quixotic creatures affectionately known as grannies. Pushing past the 101 level questions to those less commonly asked like, “How flexible are grannies?” or “Do you ever find grannies inside pumpkins?” this encyclopedia aims to expose the wide range of granny behavior in the wild. Just as in his previous book, My Pictures After the Storm, the moments Veillé captures here are delightfully odd (although they could benefit from a little more obvious diversity in the illustrations), and certainly puncture the idea that grannies can generally be defined by any one characteristic at all. The grannies chronicled here “do whatever they like with their hair. And quite right.” They enjoy more kinds of activities than you might even know existed (raking salt in salt flats!). They represent a broad range of ages (69, 58, 87!). And in a small house inside each granny lives “that same granny when she was a little girl,” which is an evocative nod to the idea that our grandparents have lived whole lives of their own that we can glimpse pieces of but never truly know.
Next, releasing September 3, UK-based Ukrainian author Elina Ellis pulls the curtain back in her searing exposé, The Truth About Grandparents. Chronicling all the truths “they” say about old people, the child narrator explains what it’s really like to hang out with old people like his grandparents. Despite the fact that old people are ostensibly “quiet,” “not much fun,” are “not bendy,” and are “scared of new things,” the coordinating illustrations belie the words on the page, as the exuberant pair in question can be seen drumming, dancing, doing yoga, and zooming down roller coasters with joyful abandon. The magic of this book lies in the humorous juxtapositions between text and art, with sharp contrasts well-deployed for maximum fun. At a recent children’s specialist meeting, we had booksellers literally doubled over laughing at this clever concoction, and I can definitely imagine families enjoying the joke together.
And finally releasing September 23, Wrinkles by French artist JR is already one of my favorite books of the year. Featuring a series of photographs originally blown up on buildings and walls in six cities across the globe for a project titled The Wrinkles of the City, the images are all close-up headshots and capture a wide range of expressions that are alternately irreverent, pensive, playful, and strong. The images feel both highly personal and very matter-of-fact. They are also quite beautiful. Utterly simple in presentation and dedicated “to our grandparents,” the accompanying text introduces the idea of wrinkles as essential parts of the human face (like eyes, noses, and mouths) that appear as we get older and tell the stories of our lives. Featuring people from Shanghai, China; Havana, Cuba; Berlin, Germany; Cartagena, Spain; Istanbul, Turkey; and Los Angeles in the U.S., the book ends with two spreads offering each subject’s brief first-person story of the life behind their wrinkles, cementing the idea that these creases and folds are the hard-won spoils of lives lived. Simple and profound, I can’t think of a children’s book exactly like this and I really truly love it. “Wrinkles tell the story of someone’s life: Of laughter, And togetherness; Of play, And calm; Of secrets, And wisdom.”
So here’s to celebrating the wrinkles around us and welcoming the chance to earn more of our own!