If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the phrase, “There’s no use crying over spilled milk” was invented with the intention of comforting a two or three-year-old. Small children, one learns, are capable of great waves of hurt at the smallest, silliest things. You want to really know why the picture book Pete the Cat is the massive success it is? Because at its heart it’s about letting go of peripheral annoyances in everyday life. Children lack perspective. And when kids get a little older, they may still need some reminding on this front. Grudges and imagined slights abound for a certain kind of kid on a regular day-to-day basis. So while I wouldn’t necessarily say that there was an outright need for a book like The Grudge Keeper, by the same token it has a message in it that it couldn’t hurt a kid to hear. That and the fact that it’s a rather charmingly illustrated and written little beastie make it one of my understated favorites of the year.
You would think that a town where no one keeps a grudge would be the happiest place on earth. But for all that Old Cornelius, the Grudge Keeper, does a good job of cataloging every tiff and squabble in his home, the denizens of Bonnyripple just keep on finding more reasons to complain. Every day they load the old man down with their petty squabbles until the inevitable happens. One day a horrid wind comes along and manages to blow the old man’s home apart. Grudges are strewn everywhere, and only by digging through them to rescue Old Cornelius to the townspeople begin to see how utterly ridiculous some of their problems really are. Grudges disappear. Fences are mended. And by the end, Bonnyripple learns that life’s too short to hold onto your grudges OR to give them to someone else to hold onto. Sometimes you’ve just gotta let ‘em go.
Author Rockliff dandles language like a toy. Her thesaurus must be positively exhausted after all the different connotations of the word “grudge”. In this book we hear about ruffled feathers, petty snits, tiffs, huffs, insults, umbrages, squabbles, dust-ups, imbroglios (my personal favorite), offenses, complaints, accusations, quibbles, low blows, high dudgeon, left-handed compliments, and pique. It’s not just the words, though. It’s how Rockliff integrates them into the text. The book has all the trappings of a folktale without actually being one. You’d be forgiven, then, for forgetting that it isn’t a classic tale handed down from mother to child for generations. From that first sentence (“No one in the town of Bonnyripple ever kept a grudge. No one, that is, except Old Cornelius, the Grudge Keeper”) to the last, the book has a delightful tone and a complete, satisfying structure.
It wasn’t that I was necessarily unaware of artist Eliza Wheeler. I’d seen her nice work on Miss Maple’s Seeds and it was entirely charming. For this book, Wheeler pulls out her usual roster of dip pens, Indian ink, and watercolor. The book itself is painted in a soft green/gold glow, like the pages have a slightly yellowed tinge to them. Wheeler also does a darn good job of distinguishing amongst the characters. Read the book twice and suddenly you get a sense of their personalities. Read it a third time and you even begin to get a sense of the layout of the village itself. No small feat. And I don’t know if author Mara Rockliff necessarily envisioned that her goat and cat would have narratives of their own, but that’s what Wheeler gave them. Besides, you’d have to have a pretty cold heart not to love a goat in a top hat. All he needs is a monocle and he’d be the talk of the town.
Folktales will always have a place in the realm of children’s literature. They remain the number one most efficient way to dole out lessons to the kiddies without sounding like you’re trying to teach them something. But new folktales are always welcome and that’s precisely what The Grudge Keeper really is. Timely in its telling, Rockliff and Wheeler together manage to make a book that feels simultaneously fresh and classic all in one go. Beautifully rendered and written, there’s nothing begrudging in my praise of this work. If you want something that could be read by countless generations of kids thanks to its classic feel, this little title has your number. Sublime.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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