Saludos todos! This week we will be reviewing a book that has recently come out and was a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards in both the category of “Best Educational Children’s Picture Book—English” and “Most Inspirational Children’s Picture Book—English.” My Abuela is Sick, written by Jennifer Bisignano and illustrated by Gaston Hauviller, tells the story of a young, female protagonist who confronts the reality of her ailing, dying grandmother, which is likely also her first encounter with death. Keeping in line with our themes for the month, this book is especially useful for young children to begin discussing and conceptualizing death, and for those already struggling with these experiences, to find solace in the shared experience of a relatable protagonist. The book may also aid teachers looking for resources to help their students through difficult times.
Although the story focuses on the theme of death and the difficulty of confronting the possibility of death, especially throughout a long and painful illness, the narrative does not explicitly dwell on that finite outcome, and the ending is left open, giving readers a bit of hope for the grandmother’s successful recovery. The story centers, rather, on the difficult journey, the anxiety, nightmares, and physical effects (worrying that she herself may too have cancer) that the young protagonist has in response to her grandmother’s illness. Death, in this particular story, is not sudden and definitive; it is a long, looming process that elicits a variety of emotional ups and downs, with enduring questions and uncertainties. In this respect, this story is incredibly impactful because it shows the nuance in one’s experience with the death of a loved one.
The book is written primarily in English, but with Spanish words peppered throughout. At the back of the book the author has included a glossary of Spanish phrases with their English translation, the first one being “Mi abuela esta enferma./ My Abuela is sick.” This phrase becomes a poetic refrain throughout the narration and is repeated on nearly every page, reflecting the persistent, haunting effect of an anxiously anticipated end.
At the very back of the book the author has also included a section on how to answer children’s difficult questions about cancer and death. This section addresses the young reader directly: “This book was created for children like you who have questions about cancer.” This book also stresses the importance in emotional expression, letting readers know that it is okay to cry and okay to have an emotional response: “Remember it is perfectly normal to become emotional when speaking about cancer. Don’t forget, it is always okay to cry.” This is especially important in a society that does not always encourage emotional expression, especially amongst men and young boys. In speaking directly to the young reader, this therapeutic guide reassures children that they are not alone in their feelings and that there are healthy tools for overcoming grief.
The book is narrated in the first person perspective of the young protagonist and starts with the little girl describing all of the wonderful things about her grandmother. I find this character description and introduction especially meaningful because it provides a well-rounded, holistic image of the grandmother; she is not defined merely by her illness, which, at times, may in fact feel or seem all-consuming. Her grandmother loves donuts and hot cider, “her hair is the color of the first stars that dance across the night sky,” and she wears small, red glasses with purple dots on them.
When her grandmother becomes sick, the most familiar parts of her personality seem more distant, too: “Today she took her glasses off. Today she doesn’t want donuts.” As the story progress, the grandmother also loses her hair that is “the color of the first stars that dance across the night sky.” As the young protagonist confronts the possibility of death, she must also adjust to the fact that her grandmother can no longer do and enjoy the things that she used to, the things that make her so familiar. Here begins the long process of learning about her grandmother’s cancer, watching her mother grieve, and feeling not only her own pain but the empathetic pain of seeing her mother, who is always so strong and brave, also suffer. This story displays the many layers of grief with intimate and comforting detail.
One especially useful scene for educators includes a moment when the young protagonist goes to school, and is sitting on a rug with her teacher and her peers discussing her grandmother’s illness. The protagonist doesn’t want to talk about her grandmother’s illness, or doesn’t know how to, but feels pressured to by the knowing gazes and inquisitive expressions of her peers: “My Abuela does not like to talk about cancer. I don’t want to talk about it either. She says it’s okay to keep things inside. It can be our secret, nuestro secreto. I want it to be our secret. But everyone in my class knows my Abuela has cancer.” Some even ask rather blunt questions, questions that are typical of young kids who have not yet learned emotional sensitivity and the seriousness of death: “A few kids today asked me if my Abuela was dead yet.” However, Hauviller’s wonderfully emotive illustrations also show the magnitude and importance of this scene. The teacher, Ms. Peggy, looks at the protagonist with a sad and sympathetic face, and the other children, although perhaps a bit uncomfortable and unsure of what to say, are taught to listen, learn and sympathize. Together, the students and the teacher have created a comfortable space to either open up about one’s feelings, sit in sad silence, or a bit of both.
Ultimately, this book helps both educators and children alike recreate this sort of tolerant, sympathetic, and sensitive environment for the health and well being of all students. As someone who has reviewed a variety of Latin American children’s books, and who has also had some personal experiences earlier in life dealing with family members who’ve had cancer, I felt truly very moved and impressed by this book. Although death is something that everyone will have to confront and deal with at some point in life, children are so often sheltered from that reality. Although the intention is to spare children of this pain, we may in fact be doing a disservice to them by not giving them the tools early on to deal with the emotional obstacles of life. These themes appear so infrequently in children’s literature, even though for many children this is precisely the kind of guidance, sympathy, and comfort they need. This book has effectively become an exceptional contribution to the body of Latinx children’s literature—highly recommended!
For those of you interested in more resources for helping children cope with death, check out the links below:
- Kids’ Health, Helping your Child Deal with Death
- Scholastic, Reading List: Grief Resources for Teachers, Children and Family
- Scholastic, Grades K-5 Grief Drawing Activity
- Education World, Helping Children Cope: Teacher Resources for Talking About Tragedy
Stay tuned for more October books!
Images Modified from: Mi Abuela is Sick, pgs. 7, 13, 14, 15, 23