By Maureen Tai, 27 April 2020
Tomie dePaola’s recent and unexpected demise prompted me to revisit one of his classic stories, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs. First published in 1973, this softly illustrated picture book is based on the author’s life when he was a child. It is a touching memoir of the close relationship between a little boy, Tommy, and his grandmothers, and is a lovely, albeit lump-in-the-throat inducing read, in particular for young ones who are grieving the loss of a grandparent. Death is never an easy topic to discuss with children and dePaola’s simple yet heartfelt story makes talking about loss a little easier. It also reminds us to savour the moments that we spend with our loved ones as each of those moments, however trivial or fleeting, becomes a memory that we can treasure once that person is gone.
Nana Upstairs is Tommy’s great grandmother, pink-cheeked with her snowy white hair held back in a cute pink bow. She is 94 years old and spends her days tucked into an old-fashioned brass bed in the upstairs room, propped up by the fluffiest pillows I’ve ever seen. Tommy’s grandmother, a robust silver-haired individual with a kindly smile, inhabits the rooms downstairs, in particular the kitchen, hence the nickname “Nana Downstairs.”
Tommy, accompanied by his stuffed toy rabbit, visits with his grandmothers every week and he describes his visits in the story. How he shares mint candies and conversation with his beloved Nana Upstairs, who has to be tied into a chair so that she won’t fall out. How he takes a nap when the grandmothers take their naps. How he watches adoringly as his grandmothers comb out their long silvery hair.
Tommy vehemently defends Nana Upstairs when his brother calls her a witch, and clings to her as they pose for a photograph, with Nana Downstairs standing closely beside him. That same faded photograph of Tommy and his grandmothers sits in a frame on top of Tommy’s dresser when he is all grown up, looking out the window at the darkened sky. As Tommy watches, a star falls from the heavens, as one did many years ago, a few days after Nana Upstairs died. By the end of the story, both grandparents have passed on and both have become, as the adult Tommy poignantly concludes, Nana Upstairs.
For ages 3 and up.