Don’t Call Me Grandma. Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Carolrhoda, 2016. 36 pages. ISBN 978-1-467742085. Click here to purchase.
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s most recent picture book stands out for its characterizations and its unforced accounting of love.
The young narrator is reminded of the witch in The Wizard of Oz whenever she mistakenly calls her Great-Grandmother Nell “Grandma”: “It’s grandMOTHER my pretty.” But Great-Grandmother Nell isn’t mean, just “prickly” and “stern.” She is also 96 and full of memories: the time her sour cherry pie won first prize, the days a Hershey bar cost a nickel, the childhood moment “her best friend said they couldn’t be friends anymore because of her brown skin.”
“Was that when your heart got broken?”
Great-Grandmother Nell “looks out the window and whispers, ‘The first time.’”
Great-Grandmother Nell’s room is fascination, its mirrored vanity crowded with fancy glass bottles, a ballerina doll on the bed, and a sweet smell: lilacs and roses. Great-Grandmother Nell takes medicine from a cup with a spider on it, and when she paints her lips ruby red she blots them on a tissue then shows the girl how to do it, too. “To make sure you are wearing just enough but not too much.”
Elizabeth Zunon’s illustrations clearly delineate between present and past in this singular story. In scenes showing the girl and Great-Grandmother Nell, although the style is a bit stiff and some compositions awkward, the images are detailed and often rich with emotion. Pictures showing Great-Grandmother Nell’s past feature a looser style in watercolor, sketch-like images. There is also a double-page collage suggesting a scrapbook, showing Great-Grandmother’s Nell’s experience as part of African American history and culture in the mid-twentieth century.
Tying it all together, present and past, is the young narrator’s first-person voice, conveying a sense of immediacy and engagement as it relates moments with her grandmother, and her grandmother’s memories, too. All of it travels along an arc of unspoken love, compassion and connection, feelings that hum beneath the surface of this keen yet tender narrative.
Reviewed by Megan Schliesman