Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Are you familiar with the concept of booktalking? It’s a technique librarians developed to get people interested in books they might otherwise not pick up. The whole concept is to develop a kind of movie trailer style talk that gives a sense of the book’s allure without giving up the plot. Typically booktalking is done for middle grade and young adult works of fiction, but enterprising souls have had a lot of luck with nonfiction as well. Now with an increased interest in nonfiction in our schools it’s more important than ever to make the books we hawk sound particularly good. It doesn’t hurt matters any when the books actually ARE good, though. Now let’s say I’m standing in front of a room of second and third graders with a copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands. How do I sell this book to them? Easy peasy. Some books practically booktalk themselves. Here’s how you sell it:
“Have any of you ever heard of Einstein? Yes? He’s the guy that was a total genius. Now imagine you’re his grandkid and you’re not that smart. Okay now, have any of you heard of the Beatles. Yes? Well imagine you’re one of THEIR grandkids . . . and you’re bad at music. Now here’s the big one. Has anyone heard of Gandhi? He was a great guy. He managed to free his country and stop a lot of oppression and he did it without any violence at all. Martin Luther King Jr. got some of his ideas from Gandhi about nonviolence. All right, well, now let’s image you are Gandhi, the most peaceful man IN THE WORLD’s grandson. What if you get mad? Can you imagine what it would be like to have everyone whispering every time you got a little steamed about something?”
So there you go. Quick. Simple. To the point. I’ve met a fair number of picture book memoirs in my day, but Grandfather Gandhi may well be my favorite. Smartly written with an unusual hook and art that will just knock your socks off, this is one title you are going to have to see firsthand for yourself.
When young Arun and his family first arrive in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he’s mighty shy around his incredibly famous relative. Yet right away Grandfather is warm and welcoming to them, and when he praises Arun for walking the distance from the train station the boy swells with pride. Unfortunately, having Gandhi as your grandpa means having to share him with the 350 followers who also live in the village. Arun struggles with his lessons in Gujarati and the fact that there are no movie theaters around, but there are upsides to village life too. He’s pretty good at soccer with the other kids, and occasionally Grandfather will take him for a walk just mano a mano. But then, one fateful day, Arun gets into a skirmish on the soccer field and his anger is overwhelming. Shamed that the grandson of Gandhi himself would react in anger he confesses to his Grandfather immediately, only to find the man isn’t angry or disappointed in him in the least. Anger, Gandhi explains, is like lightning. You can use it to destroy or you can use it to light the world, like a lamp. Which will you choose?
I think it’s fair to say that there have been a fair number of children’s picture books from family and relatives of famous peacemakers. Most notable would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s clan, where it sometimes seems like every son, daughter, niece, and nephew has his or her own spin on their infinitely famous relative. Gandhi’s a bit different. One wouldn’t expect his own descendants to have much in the way of access to the American publishing industry, so biographies of his life in picture book form have concentrated occasionally on his life and occasionally on The Great Salt March. When I saw that this book was co-authored by his fifth grandson I expected the same sort of story. A kind of mix of “this guy was fantastic” with “and I knew him!”. Instead, Hegedus and Gandhi have formulated a much more accessible narrative. Few children can relate to having a famous relative. But what about controlling their anger in the face of injustice? What’s fascinating about this book is that the authors have taken a seemingly complex historical issue and put it into terms so child-friendly that a five-year-old could get the gist of it. That Gandhi’s anger went on to become what spurned him to make lasting, important changes for his people is the key point of the book, but it takes a child’s p.o.v. to drill the issue home.
Above and beyond all that, this is a book that advocates quite strongly for peace in all its myriad forms. Hardly surprising when you consider the subject matter but just the same I sometimes feel like “peace” is one of those difficult concepts without a proper picture book advocate. I went to a Quaker college where PAGS (Peace and Global Studies) was a popular major, and it was in making Quaker friends that I learned about picture books dedicated to the concepts embraced by that particular religion. Books like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, Thy Friend, Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, and more. I’m sure that many is the Quaker household, or really any household that believes that peace is a practical and attainable solution, that will embrace Grandfather Gandhi as one of their own.
It’s been a long time since I ran across a picture book with as long and lengthy a list of materials used in the illustrations as I have here. On the publication page it reads, “The illustrations for this book are rendered in watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil. Cotton hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman.” Phew! You might think that all that “stuff” might yield something clogged up or messy, but that would be doing Mr. Turk a disservice. Observing how well he gives his pictures depth and texture, life and vitality, you might be shocked to learn that Grandfather Gandhi is his first picture book. From the spinning wheel endpapers to montages of sheer explosive anger, Turk makes a point of not only adhering to some of the more metaphorical aspects of the text, but finding new and creative ways to bring them to visual life. To my mind, the materials an artist uses in his or her art must, in the case of mixed media, have a reason for their existence. If you’re going to use “cotton fabric, cotton” and “yarn” then there should be a reason. But Turk clearly did his homework prior to doing the art on this book. He doesn’t just slap the images together. He incorporates the fibers Gandhi knew so well and turns them into an essential aspect of the book’s art. The art doesn’t just support the text here. It weaves itself into the story, becoming impossible to separate from the story.
It’s Arun’s anger that proved to be the most visually interesting aspect, to me, in the book. Turk deftly contrasts the calm white thread produced by Gandhi’s spinning with the tangled black ones that surround and engulf his grandson whenever his feelings threaten to break free. The scene where he’s tempted to throw a rock at the boy who shoved him down is filled with thread, Arun’s magnificently clenched teeth, and black shadow figures that reach out across the field to the soccer net, dwarfing the three other little figures below. Later you can see the negative space found in cut paper turning from a representation of lightning into a thread of cotton in the hands of Gandhi illuminating a passage about making your anger useful. Yet Turk doesn’t just rely on clever techniques. He’s remarkably skilled at faces too. Arun’s expressions when he gets to see his grandfather alone or makes him proud are just filled with wide-eyed eager hope. And his frustrations and anger pulse off the page from his features alone.
Picture books for kids about dealing with their anger tend towards the fictional. There’s Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry and Robie H. Harris’s The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You”. These are two of the good ones. Others veer towards the preachy and paternalistic. Imagine if you started using something like Grandfather Gandhi instead. More than just a memoir, the book offers a broad look at the benefits of channeling your anger. Better still, it’s a true story. Kids respect the true. They’ll also respect young Arun and his uncomfortable position. Fair play to author Bethany Hegedus for hearing him speak more than 13 years ago about this moment in his life, knowing that not only was there a picture book story to be had here, but a lesson kids today can grasp. As she says in her “Note from the Authors” at the end, “We world we live in needs to heal – to heal from the wars that are fought, to the bullying epidemic, to mass killings by lone gunmen, to poverty, to hunger, and to issues that contribute to internal anger being outwardly expressed in violent actions.” Gandhi’s message never grows old. Now we’ve a book that helps to continue his work for the youngest of readers. A necessary purchase then.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Gandhi: A March to the Sea by Alice B. McGinty
- A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
- Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
- The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
Other Blog Reviews:
- ReaderKidZ speaks with Ms. Hegedus about the book.
- Meanwhile Kirkus interviewed the two authors and the illustrator here.
Misc: This is a book with a very nicely maintained and updated website of its own. Some of my favorite posts include this one from Evan Turk on how he got access to the spun cotton fiber featured in the book. I also light his piece on Light & Shadow and this one on how he chose his art. Arun even has posts up containing family Gandhi stories that would make an excellent follow up books should the need arise. Be sure to read the one on pumpkins and eggs when you get a chance.
One of the top best book trailers I’ve seen in a really long time. Accomplished and it does a brilliant job of highlighting Turk’s art.
llustration & Animation by Evan Turk
Project Management: Curious City
And here’s Bethany herself telling some behind-the-scenes stories about working on the book:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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