Grandpa’s Tall Tales

I thought I’d do something a bit different this week.  I was recently talking to some friends about favorite picture books, which has got me thinking in that direction.  I usually review children’s and young adult books, but my goal is to highlight books that have cross-age appeal.  So when I recommend a book, even if its target age is officially twelve years old, my hope is that you can enjoy it even if you’re much older than twelve–after all, I enjoyed it!  So this week, I decided to review a couple of favorite picture books, which I think also have some of that cross-age appeal.  I hope you can enjoy them, even if you advanced to chapter books many years ago!

One of my all-time favorite series of picture books was written and illustrated by James Stevenson.  I don’t know if the series has a real name, but I always called them the Grandpa and Uncle Wainey books.

Whenever I get into a conversation about picture books (it comes up now and again!) I always ask if people have read them.  So far, I’ve only met one person who has.  This strikes me as a minor tragedy, because they are truly wonderful.

Each book follows roughly the same trajectory: Mary Ann and Louie come to see their Grandpa, and complain about something.  For example, it’s been raining too long.  And Grandpa always responds with a story about how, when he was a boy, it was SO MUCH worse…  Then the story continues in nearly comic book form, with Grandpa as a little boy with his baby brother, Uncle Wainey, having a tall tale adventure.  Because Mary Ann and Louie are imagining this, Grandpa and Uncle Wainey look like little boys with moustaches, which sounds strange but looks adorable (if you click the picture, you can see it larger, and hopefully see what I mean!)

We Hate Rain! is one of my favorites, when it rained for weeks and weeks, and Grandpa’s entire house filled up with water.  But at least there was plenty of company–neighbors kept floating in to visit, in through one window and out through another.  When the rain stopped and the water receded, they still had a problem because the house was full of water.  Fortunately, Grandpa hit on the idea of pulling the plug in the bathtub, and all the water drained away.

The books are full of funny, absurd details like that.  One of my favorite parts is the way Grandpa, Uncle Wainey, and especially their parents take all of these happenings so matter-of-factly.  One of the best bits of We Hate Rain! is when the water starts coming in under the door.  Grandpa’s parents very calmly stand in ankle deep water and watch it rise.  His mother says, “Oh my.  The water seems to be coming under the door,” to which his father responds, “So I see, my dear.”  And over the next few panels they continue about their life, reading and cooking and playing the piano, in steadily rising water.

There’s at least ten books in the series.  Another of my favorites is That’s Exactly the Way It Wasn’t (cover above), in which Grandpa and Uncle Wainey keep disagreeing about everything–including whether or not they’re falling off a cliff, a point they debate as they fall headfirst through the air (including politely asking the opinion of a bird as they pass her nest).

The stories always end up happily, with Mary Ann and Louie’s problem being resolved (or dwindling into unimportance by comparison), and with the grown-up Uncle Wainey coming to visit bearing ice cream.

I loved these as a kid, and I still love them now.  I think I took Grandpa’s stories much more at face-value when I was younger–all kinds of fantastical things happen in picture books, after all–and I can see more clearly now that perhaps there was a message in there about not complaining about rain, or about not arguing with your brother.  This probably never consciously occurred to me when I was actually in the target age group. 

But just because I’ve migrated a little from Mary Ann and Louie’s point of view over to seeing things from Grandpa’s angle, that doesn’t change how much I enjoy the books.  And they’re still just as funny.

7 thoughts on “Grandpa’s Tall Tales

  1. Diane

    Forgot to mention that James Stevenson occasionally does illustrations for the NY Times newspaper on their Saturday op-ed page. He illustrates stories about famous buildings or people in New York’s history. He uses the same style of drawing, but the pictures are clearly designed for adults (more realistic). I thought, “I know him!” the first time I saw the illustrations and the credited artist.

    1. That’s a great background story on James Stevenson! He definitely has a distinctive style–occasionally I’ve run across a picture book by another author but with his illustrations, and he’s very recognizable. And “whimsical” is a perfect adjective for these books!

  2. Diane

    Thought you might work these into a post at some point – they DEFINITELY have cross-age appeal, both for the stories and the wonderful illustrations. They are whimsical and fun.

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