Friday, February 18, 2011

Extended Family

The relationship between the third-grade heroine and her grandfather forms the core of Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han, illustrated by Julia Kuo. It’s relatively rare to find new books with portrayals of an intergenerational family living together under the same roof.

Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs and his 26 Fairmount Avenue books spring to mind. And for older readers, there’s Paul Fleischman’s The Borning Room, and two books by Sharon Creech—Heartbeat and Granny Torelli Makes Soup. And one of my favorite tributes to intergenerational families and relationships is a nonfiction title—Eloise Greenfield's book written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little, Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, which covers life from the late 19th-century through the mid-20th-century. This was (and is) a common experience for many families, especially when they were first arriving in the United States.

Clara Lee confides everything in Grandpa, including her wish to be Little Miss Apple Pie in their town’s Apple Blossom Festival. Grandpa’s unfamiliarity with some of the rituals of the Apple Blossom Festival gives Clara Lee reason to explain them (for his as well as readers’ benefit). And when her anxiety about preparing for the contest causes her to grow impatient with her six-year-old sister, Emmeline, Grandpa may be gentler with the third-grader than perhaps her parents would be, but his disappointment in her behavior makes a greater impact on Clara Lee.

In the book’s most poignant scene, Clara Lee tells her grandfather about Miss Little Apple Pie hopeful Dionne Gregory bragging to Clara Lee that her great-great-great-uncle was one of their town’s founding fathers, and that her family is “as American as apple pie.” His response—that her Korean American heritage makes her more of a person, not less of a person—provides the perfect reassurance for Clara Lee. He gives Clara Lee a way of perceiving herself that will far outlast a Little Miss Apple Pie crown.

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