Brace yourself. This isn't a happy story.
Still, it is a sweet, sad one that's likely to give you a big lump in the throat.
Xiao Le, a little Chinese boy, hasn't seen his grandmother in a long time. Grandma lives in Perfume Village, which is rather faraway. One morning, his mother tells him they are taking a long train ride to visit Grandma. Xiao Le happily carries his backpack and brings along his toy truck.
To show Grandma.
When they reach the village, Grandma's neighbour, Aunt Zhou, answers the door.
"Hurry in! Your grandma is not feeling well. She's in bed."
This isn't a normal visit. This is a visit to say goodbye. But Xiao Le doesn't know it. He only sees frail Grandma lying in bed and he's a little afraid of going near her. Mother tells Xiao Le to look after Grandma while she makes some snacks and does some chores.
Xiao Le runs to his mother when Grandma needs water, or when she tosses and turns in her bed. He carefully places pills in Grandma's mouth, one by one, when she needs to take some medicine.
(Precious boy, this one.)
Weakly, Grandma chats with Xiao Le. They talk about the photo of Grandpa and Mother by her bedside, play a wood sorrel game when Grandma feels like sitting in the sun, and have afternoon tea in the yard.
When Grandma feels tired and wishes to take a nap, Xiao Le leaves his truck with her. He doesn't know exactly what is going on, but he sees Mother wiping away tears as she talks to Aunt Zhou. Later in the evening, they bid goodbye to Grandma, who wants Xiao Le to visit her again soon.
From that day on Xiao Le never saw Grandma again.
Xiao Le can tell Mother is hurting. In his kind, pure-hearted manner, he gets her (and us) through grief. The sense of loss will always be there. But grief, in this case, can be eased.
The writing is nice and the illustrations, my goodness, are gorgeous. (I'm not a big, big fan of realistic artwork in children's literature but here I am in awe of the images.) The storyline isn't new. We've all read about children coping with grief and loss in picture books. However, I got a bit emotional reading this book because it reminded me of my grandmothers. And I felt very sorry for Xiao Le's mother. There must be many like her in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, where their aging parents still stay in rural areas while they have moved to big cities to work and raise their own family. Visiting their parents perhaps takes place only a few times a year, if lucky enough. Some in China, I hear, only get to go home to their village during Chinese New Year. (Have you read about how it's like at train stations during Chinese New Year in China? Packed crazy. Check out this BBC article.)
Once a year. That's all.
And just like Xiao Le's mother, they all wish they can take better care of their parents.
Are you lucky enough to be near your family and friends?
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Want to know what children's stories can inspire & lead to?
by Kate Hanney
Really enjoyed the honest voice of this narrator ~ a teenager let down by his mother and the foster care system, and almost-picked up through his involvement with a gang.