One of my favorite moments when my 6-year-old granddaughter comes to visit is bedtime. Besides being tired myself after a long day of active and imaginative play with her, it provides us a moment to settle down into our nighttime routine of choosing some books to read before we snuggle up on “her” bed in our guest room. Praise be, she loves reading and being read to. And she has become quite the critic of children’s books.
Recently I received an advance review copy of Jennifer Grant’s new children’s book Once Upon a Time Not So Long Ago. Reading it ahead of time, I knew what its subject matter was and decided it was an opportunity for Miss M to share her thoughts with me. We began it like we do with all the books before opening the pages; looking at the cover we try to figure out what the book is about. “It’s a boy talking to his grandfather.” “I wonder what they are talking about?”
Beginning with the familiar, “once upon a time,” Grant immediately engaged her, thinking that a fairy tale was about to begin. (Fairy tales with princesses are a favorite.) But immediately the Gillian Whiting’s illustrations took a somber tone, effectively changing the mood to one of importance and reality. With eyes wide open, she listened as I read about what she calls “the sickness.” Three pages in, with an illustration of a masked healthcare worker, she exclaimed, “This isn’t ‘once upon a time’ – it’s about today!” As we turned each page slowly, letting the words and illustrations soak in, she proceeded to tell me how she had a similar experience to each picture. During this past year she has come to know a variety of bird species by name. Her dog and cats have kept her company when she couldn’t go to school. She helped her parents in their vegetable garden. And she mastered Zoom as kindergartener.
Grant has created a simple book with important words to help children articulate what the past 18 months have meant – to all of us. Life is no longer the same, but we have gained much in learning how to protect ourselves and our neighbors. The questions at the end of this true story opened up further conversation while looking at the pages that she could write in (“Some other day,” she said.) What she remembered most about these times was not being able to go to friends’ birthday parties or have playdates. What she missed most was her friends, but was happy to be back at school even though they had to wear masks.
We closed the book and gave each other a hug. Then she asked if we could read Babar again. Life continues.
For families, schools, and faith communities this new book is an important addition to any library. As the pandemic that will remain in all of our memories continues, it will serve as an excellent tool to help children reflect upon and talk about the difficult times we are living in. Don’t wait to give it as a gift on a birthday or holiday. Simply give it to a child you know and love today.