Rites of Summer

When bees and grannies and birthdays are the law of the land

Beekeepers
by Linda Oatman High
illustrated by Doug Chayka
Boyds Mills Press, 1998

Just Right Stew
by Karen English
illustrated by Anna Rich
Boyds Mills Press, 1998

Our Granny, Just Right Stew, and Beekeepers, three children's books in which a grandparent figures prominently, are very different from the literature of my childhood. My imagination visited worlds like that of Dr. Seuss and A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin, in which animals and make-believe creatures were far more important than mere humans. Today's authors are often realists. They all tell stories from a child's point of view, finding what is entertainment and amazement in ordinary life.

In her lyrical book, Our Granny (illustration by Julie Viva, paperback price: $5.95, ISBN: 0395-88395-4, copyright 1994, ages 4 to 8), Margaret Wild introduces "Granny" as both a type of person and a character. She expands the idea of a "granny" by describing the very different people who can be called by this name: "Some grannies live in . . . /apartments/big old houses/old people's homes/little rooms in the city/trailers/farmhouses/cottages by the ocean/nursing homes/or nowhere at all."

The narrators, a granddaughter and son, talk about "our granny," so a young reader might be prompted to think, Who is my granny? Is she like any of those mentioned here? Wild's grandchildren know their granny pretty well. She's told them she does exercises to make her bottom smaller. I don't think I ever got that intimate with either of my grandmothers, but the story makes it clear that the world's full of many very different grannies.

Julie Vivas' watercolors support this grannies-of-the-global-village agenda with a playful sense of color, texture, and form. The point of view is true to a child's, observant and nonjudgmental. Such a point of view seems not only preferable for any member (child or no) of the global village to have, but necessary.

Karen English's Just Right Stew (illustration by Anna Rich, hardback price: $14.95, ISBN: 1-56397-487-8, copyright 1998, ages 5 to 9) is told by Victoria, the granddaughter of Big Mama who is invited to a birthday dinner that evening at Victoria's mother's house. This story uses Victoria's many aunts and great aunts to portray different perspectives--and the clashes that can occur between them--in a positive light. Their defined personalities are what make the story enjoyable. Anna Rich's oil paint illustrations are a good match, giving visual interpretations of each aunt's personality and portraying wonderful facial expressions for their many moods and attitudes.

Before the party, Victoria's mother and two aunts, Rose and Violet, work as a team (albeit a slightly unwilling one), sharing their knowledge of what they've seen Big Mama put in her stew. They stand around the pot together stirring and tasting. After the guests begin to arrive, different aunts sneak into the kitchen at different times, with only Victoria to witness, and add their "secret ingredients" admonishing their little niece "Don't tell a soul," and "Keep it to yourself."

Victoria doesn't view her host of women role models as merely "the grown-ups" but as individuals with diverse lives. She views herself neither as the center of attention nor as someone on the outside of things, but as a member of the family, important as any other, no more, no less. This is apparent when Big Mama gives her a hug and whispers "My favorite granddaughter," and Victoria tells us " . . . I believe her 'cause I'm the only girl."

Just Right Stew is also a story of initiation for Victoria, whom Big Mama chooses to be the only recipient of her recipe for oxtail stew, leaving everyone else with only a partial list of ingredients.

Linda Oatman High's Beekeepers (illustration by Doug Chayka, hardback price: $14.95, ISBN: 1-56397-486-X, copyright 1998, ages 5 to 8) is also a story of initiation. It is the first time a grandfather tells his granddaughter to gather a swarm of bees down from a tree limb and into one of the man-made hives in the bee yard. The description is rich and pleasant and Doug Chayka's oil illustrations have a warmth that supports the writing style. To a child who knows nothing about beekeeping, this story might seem mysterious, even magical. The poem that the girl and her grandfather recite, "A swarm in May is worth a load of hay . . . A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon . . . A swarm in July isn't worth a fly," could be an incantation. It might also prompt the reader to want to know more about beekeeping and encourage a little parent-child research at the local library or on the Internet.

Terry Wisniewski lives and works in Bloomington, Indiana. Her poems have appeared inMinnesota Parent and several literary journals.

 
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