On Sunday, my mother-in-law took my lucky children to see Hamilton. This give me the chance to check out the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, an annual event in nearby Chappaqua, NY, which gathers local authors for a day of readings and signings. This year there were nearly 90 authors and illustrators, as well as food trucks, face painters, and people dressed in full-body costumes of Elephant, Piggie and Clifford. When I got there Victoria Kann (Pinkalicious and its 37 sequels) was sitting in a prime position at her very own table at the center of the lawn. She was wearing a sparkly sequined cardigan and the line to meet her was at least 40 families long.
But the author I was most excited to meet was Emily Arnold McCully.
She’s been illustrating books since the ’60s and to date she’s written or illustrated nearly one hundred titles, including the Caldecott-winning Mirette on the High Wire (1992). My husband adores Mirette and when he used to read it to our kids he always wondered aloud why it hadn’t been made into a movie (more on this later). My own personal favorite Emily Arnold McCully book is a funny little “I Can Read” title from 1998 called The Grandma Mix-up.
It’s about a girl named Pip whose parents go away for the weekend, leaving her with her two grandmothers. Grandma Sal is a fun, relaxed, let-them-eat-cake-and-watch TV type of grandma. Grandma Nan, on the other hand, is a rule-bound, type A grandma with a penchant for schedules and vegetables. The grandmothers take opposite stances on everything, making Pip miserable. But by the end, Pip saves the day: she stands up to her dueling grandmothers and insists that they compromise. The book is a lesson in moderation.
The illustrations add a fascinating, if unspoken, layer. Fun grandma may be sweet and lovable, but as drawn by McCully she’s also kind of fat and dumpy. She looks like someone who watches a lot of daytime TV. Strict grandma, meanwhile, looks like Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz — all sharp angles and disapproving scowls. But she also comes across as smart and high functioning. She’s the kind of grandma whose car is plastered with decals from Ivy League schools.
The interesting thing about the book is that Pip doesn’t actually prefer fun grandma over strict grandma, as most kids probably would. “Grandma Nan is too hard, and Grandma Sal is too easy,” she writes in a secret letter to her parents.
I have my own takeaway from this book, which is that I feel sorry for strict grandma. She probably loves Pip just as much as fun grandma does and she’s just doing what she thinks is best for the child. She can’t help it if she’s a born task master — sort of like my own mother.
My kids are fortunate to have two devoted grandmothers, both actively involved in their lives. But my husband’s mother is most definitely the fun one (think: Hamilton tickets) and my own mother, bless her heart, is the not-as-fun-one. (To be absolutely clear here, neither are dumb or dumpy.) I know that my mom would love to be the fun one, if she could be. But just like Grandma Nan, she can’t help her essential nature, which is to buy educational gifts and say “no.”
She’s a tiger mother and, well, I guess I can relate.
** P.S. Emily told me that Mirette on the High Wire, which has been optioned three times, is finally being made into a film. London director Helen O’Hanlon is in post-production on the short film, Mirette, which stars a talented young unknown actress named Dixie Egerickx in the title role. With any luck we’ll be able to see it streaming somewhere next year. You can check out the movie’s website here.