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Review of Kaddish for Grandpa: in Jesus' Name Amen, by James Howe. Illustrated by Catherine Stock. Atheneum; May 1, 2004. 32 pages.
Children experience the loss of family members in many ways, depending on their age and maturity. For some, a chance to say goodbye is very important; others find comfort in memories, rituals, or tangible reminders of the love they shared. When a child is feeling sad, good books may be especially comforting, and James Howe, the skilled author of Kaddish for Grandpa: in Jesus' name amen, knows how to provide that needed comfort. (By the way, this is the same James Howe who has authored three popular series for children: Bunnicula, Pinky and Rex, and Horace and Morris, so your child may already be a fan.)
As the story begins, a little girl, Emily, observes that, "When I was new, my grandpa was very old." She shares her warm memories of her relationship with her grandfather, culminating in his death. But the story is a little less simple than it first appears. Emily's father is Christian and her mother is Jewish. Since her grandfather is Christian, the funeral is held in a church. Emily's parents prepare her for the funeral at church; then later at home, a rabbi holds a service in which the special Jewish prayer said at a time of loss, the Kaddish, is recited.
While these elements of the story offer a learning opportunity for children (and adults) sharing the book, in the end Emily's experience of her grandfather's death is a more universal one. In a very realistic way, Emily's discovery of her grandfather's glasses under the cushion of his chair, which she then keeps tucked under her pillow, connects her to him. It is being able to be close to something that she associates with her grandfather that provides comfort for Emily.
The watercolor illustrations are soft and simple, appropriate to the story. Perhaps the least appealing part of this otherwise important contribution is the awkward title that may put off some potential readers. But the book Kaddish for Grandpa: in Jesus' name amen is an important contribution. There are many wonderful fiction books for children about the death of a grandparent, but this is a particularly good choice for a child in an interfaith family who loses a loved grandparent and must cope with differing religious rituals.
Note: Other recommended titles about the death of a grandfather include: Blackberries in the Dark by Mavis Jukes (Yearling Books; 1994); Grandpa Loved by Josephine Nobisso (Gingerbread House; 2000); and Sweet Sweet Memory by Jacqueline Woodson (Hyperion Books; 2000).