December 6, 2017
It was, let me acknowledge, an old-school response. A major life cycle event was underway — becoming a grandmother or, to use the Yiddish name I’ve chosen, becoming Bubbe. So I began looking for a helpful book.
Others might prefer a website like The Grandparent Effect, where the writer Olivia Gentile passes along news, interviews and studies.
But I wanted a book I could underline and dog-ear and stick Post-its on. I had in mind an authoritative user’s manual, a later-life counterpart to the Penelope Leach baby and child guide I’d relied on as a parent. I also hoped to find more empathic, personal volumes that explored the emotional side of the experience.
Publishers would be eagerly targeting this vast market of 70 million American grandparents, I figured, so I would find dozens of worthy contenders in both categories.
You can indeed find scores of grandparenting books. But when you weed out journals and keepsake albums, books for specialized audiences (often religious ones, like “Biblical Grandparenting: Exploring God’s Design, Culture’s Messages, and Disciple-Making Methods to Pass Faith to Future Generations”), self-published books (without gatekeepers, it’s hard to gauge quality), books that label their reader a “complete idiot,” and those out of print except for digital versions, there’s not much left of substance.
But here’s the good news: You can find scads of wonderful children’s books about grandparents, even if there aren’t a lot of great adult books for them.
Why the disparity? Maybe the industry thinks we’ve been parents already, so we don’t need or want books about grandparenting, even though these are very different roles.
Or perhaps potential readers don’t exactly want to acknowledge being old enough to be grandparents, though you can achieve that status long before Medicare eligibility.
When I asked people in publishing about the gap, they couldn’t quite explain it.
“They’re conspicuous by their absence,” the literary agent Andrew Blauner said of good grandparenting books.
“There should be a big book by someone we’ve all heard of and want to hear from,” said Marnie Cochran, executive editor at Ballantine Bantam Dell, who has published family and parenting books for 25 years. “Like Nora Ephron, God rest her soul.”
So why isn’t there? Ms. Cochran’s sense is that grandparents who want the kind of guidance offered by a Penelope Leach are reading … Penelope Leach.
Still, here are my picks. I’ll be interested in yours.
When it comes to instruction manuals, I’ve found no contemporary expert with the status and clout of a Spock, a Brazelton or a Leach. But a California child psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, came close. He researched grandparenting extensively, published half a dozen books and many articles in the 1980s and ’90s, became a TV fixture. Tom Brokaw called him “the Dr. Spock of grandparenting.”
Now 85 and still practicing, he has self-published an updated version of his encyclopedic “The Grandparent Guide,” first released in 2002. Like many self-published books, it suffers from poor layout and design, with lots of typos; it’s not an aesthetically pleasing object.
But so what? Here’s a guy who has thought about every aspect of grandparenting, cosmic and pragmatic, and covers subjects ranging from favoritism and spending to L.G.B.T. families and visitation laws. He writes authoritatively, citing others’ research and his own; he combines compassion with sound advice. Like a Spock or a Brazelton, he earns your trust.
And he may have a rival come March. The trade publication Publishers Weekly just warmly reviewed “Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today” by Jane Isay, a longtime editor and author of several books on family relationships.
On the more experiential end of the spectrum, I salute “Eye of My Heart,” the 2009 anthology of grandparenting essays by 27 women, some with familiar names (Roxana Robinson, Susan Shreve, Beverly Lowry), some less known, a couple taking refuge in pseudonyms. (Mr. Blauner, the agent, represented the book.)
In writing about grandmotherhood (grandfathers are even more underrepresented on bookstore shelves), they’ve taken a collective deep breath and proceeded with unexpected honesty.
You’ll read heartening stories, but also chilling ones. The authors confess to competitiveness and perfectionism. They sometimes triumph as magical, memory-making grandmoms and sometimes screw up. They keen over grandchildren they’re no longer permitted to see. (Note to my daughter and son-in-law: Don’t ever do this, ever.) It’s a compelling collection.
A few runners-up in this category: The relentlessly droll Judith Viorst’s account of a briefly multigenerational household, “Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days.” The more recent “Becoming Grandma,” from the veteran television journalist Lesley Stahl. And, depending on how resonant you find her spiritual labors, Anne Lamott’s “Some Assembly Required.”
You’ll find the true riches, though, among the children’s books. Here, I turned to a friend, Marjorie Ingall, author of “Mamaleh Knows Best,” who reviews children’s books for the Times Book Review.
Among picture books for the youngest, she gave a thumbs-up to Todd Parr, who has created dozens of Technicolorful books on an array of subjects. I add my thumbs-up for his producing both “The Grandma Book” and “The Grandpa Book.” “For very, very little kids, these books are crack,” Marjorie said. “And if the goal is to enjoy cuddle time with your grandkid and make reading feel intimate and pleasurable, mission accomplished.”
She also applauded Lauren Castillo’s “Nana in the City,” a Caldecott Honor picture book for ages 4 through 7. “The grandma is bold, vigorous and energetic and wears snazzy Berkeley therapist-esque clothes,” she said. “I have a hard time thinking of other picture books with lively, out-in-the-world, non-soup-making grandmas.”
She’s also fond of another Caldecott Honor picture book, by the revered Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis. “Coming on Home Soon,” meant for 5- to 8-year-olds, is set during World War II, when a mother must go off to work in far-off Chicago, leaving her daughter behind with her grandmother. “It’s an intimate portrayal of the little girl and grandma’s life together,” Marjorie says.
Other friends have tipped me to “Tom,” the wonderful illustrator Tomie dePaola’s idiosyncratic tribute to his own grandfather. And to Vera B. Williams’s much-loved “A Chair for My Mother.” And to “What Grandmas Do Best” by Laura Numeroff, of giving-cookies-to-mice fame. Flipped over, it becomes “What Grandpas Do Best,” and in egalitarian fashion, the text is the same for both.
All these children’s books were new to me, and they’re all marvels. So my granddaughter will come out ahead in this investigation, apparently.
The bookshelves in her small bedroom are already crammed, because while we were awaiting her birth, good friends hosted what they called Bubbe’s Book Shower.
The guests all brought favorite children’s books, a wonderful idea. Nobody had to worry about proper sizes or whether her parents would appreciate princess-themed onesies. (Answer: No.) People just brought copies of “The Story of Ferdinand” and “The Runaway Bunny.”
But I’m going to wedge in these new titles, too. This is the kind of reading about grandparents I’ll probably be doing for a while.