Grandfather and the Moon
(Originally titled Grand Pere et la Lune)
By Stéphanie Lapointe
Illustrated by Rogé
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Ages: Your Call
On shelves May 1st
“Flummox” is a good word. Very descriptive. It sounds like it defines. Some people are flummoxed constantly. Others are stoic non-flummoxers. I’m somewhere in-between on the flummox-spectrum scale. In life, I flummox occasionally but in books I’m generally quite stoic. That’s why, when I meet an appropriately flummox-ish title I grab and review it immediately. My reviews are predicated entirely on having something to say and a book chock-full o’ flummox certainly fits the bill. Take today’s example: Grandfather and the Moon by “Stéphanie Lapointe”. Since I received an early review copy from the publisher I opened up what I assumed to be a picture book, or maybe an early chapter book, and found myself reading a little publication note with a suggested age range of 9-12. Say what now? Ah. Must be one of those serious books for older children. Maybe it would even have some illustrated novel aspects. In a single lunchtime I sat down and read it cover to cover. Then I just sat there, my half-eaten apple rocking morosely on my plate. That . . . that . . . It was total flummoxication. I’ve recovered sufficiently since there, but I have to tell you that this is not your normal, average, everyday, please everyone, children’s book. No, this is a book that might be a picture book, might be a middle grade short novel, might be for young adults, and could certainly be for adults as well. The best I can say is that it’s a short story, illustrated. And that you’ll never read anything quite like it this year.
“Grandfather was a man of few words . . . It’s so easy not to notice a man of few words.” His granddaughter remembers him well. She remembers how much he loved his partner Lucille and that when she died he wasn’t quite in the real world anymore. He’d sleep all the time, and speak even less often than he used to. Hoping to engage his interest his granddaughter tells him that she has won the highly desirable Who Will Go to the Moon Contest. Many entered but she actually won! It’s hard to say how much he hears, though, and when she finds herself in space she begins to think of all the animals that came before her. So she ejects from the ship. Why? Well, as she puts it, what do you do, “when someone wanted to give you the moon and you didn’t take it”?
I’m trying to pinpoint precisely where I went wrong with this book and I think a lot of it just comes down to thwarted expectations. When I began the book I was hoodwinked by Lapointe’s careful examination of her grandfather’s heart. It had all the trappings of explaining what happens when a family member suffers an awful grief. And while the protagonist is a child, I could understand how in many ways the book might opt to simply use her as an outside observer while the true focus became the grandfather’s journey back to life, as it were. Children’s books have done this before, to mixed results. Sometimes I think the only time a book for kids can even be written about adults is if the book is about a grandparent as seen through a kid’s eyes. (Or if the book is about adult fuzzy animals, but that’s neither here nor there). Lapointe, however, has no interest in this cut and dried narrative. That’s why, halfway through the book, the book takes what, to me, felt like a sharp right turn. It gave us the moon.
This is how Lapointe introduces the moon element: “I thought it would make him proud when I told him that I’d been chosen for the Who Will Go to the Moon Contest.” And I admit that at first I thought the main character was joking. Yeah, right. A trip to the moon. Pull the other one. But then she started talking about waiting in line to win the ticket to be the first civilian to go to the moon in person. And around the time she started discussing the individual reasons for why they might want to take such a trip I actually had to force myself to understand that I was reading a work of fiction. I don’t think a kid would have a problem with the leap in logic the story takes. It was my adult mind with all its built-in expectations that was flailing about. I was under the impression that this story took place in the realistic present. Now I had to deal with the fact that it was the speculative science fiction past. And then, after I had gotten that far, the book became philosophical.
It’s not a fair comparison but I kept thinking about Italo Calvino’s short story “The Distance of the Moon” after I put the book down. The moon inspires a specific kind of melancholy in some. It’s beautiful, but cold. Distant and airless and it changes with a faithful regularity. Calvino’s story is about the romance of the moon in all its coldness, but upon reflection that’s not the short story this relates best to. That honor instead goes to more than one of Ray Bradbury’s tales of claustrophobia in space. There you see the psychosis and claustrophobia and downright fear that space inspires. Throw in a little of Bowie’s “Major Tom” and you’ve got yourself a story. A story that understands what space travel really is and what it means. After all, as our heroine puts it, the Who Will Go to the Moon Contest is probably called that because it sounds more fun than, “the Who Will or Won’t Like the Silence and the Stars That Aren’t Dead or That Might Be Dead but That Keep Hanging in There Contest.”
It’s hard to review good translations. Not because I feel that translations are less worthy reading than books written in their original language, but because there’s no way to judge how well the translator did unless you too can speak both the language of the original and its interpretation. Repeatedly I was impressed by Lapointe’s language, but I had to wonder how much credit to hand to her. Consider this selection from a moment when Grandfather’s love of his life, Lucille, is dying of cancer:
“But on one of her not-so-good days, when she was at the end of her rope and thirsty and her breath was too short and the rays of sun were too thin in her hospital room that was too white – all those things that pile up and kill hope came and settled in for good, and Lucille passed away.”
It seems to me that you cannot, in good conscience, thank just one person for a passage like that. So please allow me to congratulate both Stephanie Lapointe and Shelley Tanaka, for their excellent work together. Well done! Well done!
The color of this book is the color of melancholy. A lot of grays and browns and the occasional shot of red to wake you up when you begin to drift, like grandfather. For me, the art was most interesting in two very different respects. First, there were the images of normal everyday people. I liked looking at the faces standing behind the rope, waiting in line to see if they’d be the one to win the trip to the moon. The people who appear to cheer our heroine on as she walks in her spacesuit to the launch were marvelous too. There were only about eleven of them (not counting the person chatting at the food truck in the background), some we’d seen waiting in the line before, and none of them overly enthused. That was neat, but my favorite spreads in the book come when our hero ejects herself into space. You’d miss her at first. The stars shine in the firmament and there, lower right corner, she splays out, spread-eagled. Turn the page and you’ve a wordless double spread and she’s even tinier. And for just a moment you truly believe that she’s launched herself into the void never to return. But this is, at its heart, a family story. One could probably even draw a line between the grandfather’s feeling of complete and utter loss and our heroine’s when faced with a different kind of nothingness. In other words, English teachers could have a field day with this one.
Clearly, I was at a loss with the book, but I kind of liked that. I like it when a book for kids (or teens . . . or maybe adults) surprises me out of my complacent stupor for once. So let’s just look at the ending and then get on our way. Is it a happy ending or a sad one? Our heroine lands not far from where her grandfather has parked, asleep. Was he waiting for her? Is it a coincidence? As she says herself, “Hard to say whether it was destiny or chance (you have to know, first of all, which you believe in)”. Do they drive home together? At first it appears that the book is not telling. You see the car on the road, presumably parked. You turn the page and it may or may not have moved but look closely now. You’ll see it. The trees at first appear to be the same around it, but upon closer inspection you can see that two have disappeared. The car is driving. The grandfather was waiting for his granddaughter. Everything is suddenly (I don’t know why) okay. A nice thought.
There are those that will be infuriated by this book. Let them be. There will be libraries that decide pretty quickly that the book is not for them. Fair enough. Others will decide the book will never circulate in their library. They may be right, but it would be worth placing it in the hands of the right reader. The age of that reader? You tell me. This book might be for everybody or it might be for nobody. To my mind, it could be a perfect book discussion group for kids and teens of all ages. You get out of this book what you put into it. It’s literary. Just don’t expect me to tell you how to feel about it.
On shelves May 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher.
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