By Maureen Tai, 18 March 2019
“… you can count on some things like love, family and tradition to stay the same.” – Mum
Most picture books about the Lunar New Year focus on explaining the cultural traditions and practices of the biggest celebration in the Chinese calendar – the red lai see packets, the new year’s eve family reunion dinner, the auspicious dishes, the exploding firecrackers and the deafening lion dances. Grandma and the Things that Stay the Same chooses instead to focus on what is central not only the Chinese during the Lunar New Year, but to people all over the world during their major festivals.
And that core is Family.
The narrator in this adorable picture book is a diminutive yellow crested bird. Her older sister is a large, slender pink bird with two feathers sticking up jauntily from her head. Dad is a brown bear in suspenders and plaid trousers. Mum is some sort of ungulate in a camel-coloured shift dress, her front pouch pocket stuffed with lucky red packets. Grandma, the nucleus of the family, is a bespectacled, white and fluffy sheep. She wears a Chinese-style jacket in fire engine red and she hosts the reunion dinner every Lunar New Year. So far, so diverse.
As the family gathers for the reunion dinner – possibly THE most important family dinner in the year for a Chinese family – Grandma does what she always does after the food is served (ask anyone with a Chinese elder, they will know this to be true). She unabashedly asks direct, pointed questions of each family member. Publicly. Questions repeated from last year, and to be asked again the following year until a satisfactory response is delivered. Some of the questions are awkward (“Do you have a boyfriend?”), some are borderline rude (“When will you have the next baby?”) and some are embarrassing especially for the child who is not a model student (“What position were you in class?”) – referring to a child’s ranking in her class or grade after the final school exams.* The same litany of questions, year after year, as constant as Grandma, as unchanging as the traditions that connect us, as unwavering as the family that surrounds us, and as strong as the love that binds us.
This cute and heartwarming story hints at the creators’ Malaysian/Singaporean roots. The picture of the little yellow bird and her two other friends, holding books on their heads while standing in their “naughty squares” on a tree branch immediately transports me back in time to the dusty corner of my Form 2 classroom where I stood alone, all through the lesson, because I had been passing notes and chattering in class. Like the little yellow bird, I never achieved the Holy Grail of first place in class either. The fact that the single digit position alluded me in all my years of schooling in Malaysia will haunt me to my dying day.**
Published by Epigram Books, we discovered Grandma and the Things that Stay the Same at a book fair several years ago. Like Grandma’s questions, it comes out of our bookshelf for a read at least once a year. Just before the new Lunar New Year.
For ages 3 and above.
* Malaysian/Singaporean schools typically have end-of-year exams for all students. The results/marks are tabulated for each student and the children are “positioned” in order of their total scores. Top marks gets you the coveted first place position, which guarantees you a space in the best class in the grade next year and garners the adulation of teachers, parents and (secretly) other kids. The closer your position is to the bottom of the list, the more mortifying it is. ‘Tis a cruel, cruel system.
** I am being melodramatic, of course. 18 was a very lucky number.