Grandma’s Purple Flowers
by Adjoa J. Burrowes
Lee & Low Books, 2000
I’ve written before about the special relationship I had with my maternal grandmother, and about how devastated I was when she died, just a few months before I graduated from college. I know I was blessed to have her as long as I did: my paternal grandmother died when I was a preteen, and many of my friends lost their own grandparents in elementary school or junior high.
I would wager that most young children lose at least one elderly relative or friend before they reach junior high. If not a grandparent, then perhaps a great-grandparent, beloved neighbor, or babysitter. And some children deal with a less expected kind of death, such as that of a parent, sibling, peer, or teacher.
Grief can be very challenging for young children. It’s often a brand-new experience, and they may not realize that it’s normal, have the words to describe it, or even be able to recognize it for what it is. So the right book can be an excellent tool for helping a child to identify and process feelings of grief in a healthy way.
Trolling through past postings, I realized that I’ve reviewed very few books about death and grief – fewer than 10, by my count. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I haven’t encountered many books geared specifically toward helping girls deal with death and grief. Second, the ones I’ve found tended to be maudlin, poorly-written, mass-produced projects. Certainly not inspiring.
When I came across Adjoa J. Burrowes’ Grandma’s Purple Flowers, however, I knew I’d found a treasure. This inspiring picture book deals with grief subtly, gently, and realistically. It’s a wonderful option for young girls who are experiencing grief for the first time or have just lost a beloved grandmother.
The main character and narrator is an unnamed girl – probably about nine or ten years old – who walks through the park to visit her grandmother almost every day. The two tend a flower garden together, eat corn muffins and pecan pie, and talk about Grandma’s childhood in Mississippi.
Their relationship is full of ordinary gestures that make the book relatable and real. The narrator loves sitting on Grandma’s lap and counting her gold teeth; Grandma calls the narrator “Sweetie Pie,” rubs her back, and braids up the narrator’s hair when it comes undone.
That realism extends to Grandma’s aging process and the narrator’s reaction to her death. As the seasons advance, Grandma moves more and more slowly until she can barely answer the door. When she dies, the narrator wants to stay inside and mope for the rest of the winter (thankfully, her wise mother won’t allow it) and says simply, “Oh, how I miss Grandma! Walking through the park makes me sad.”
The story’s focus on seasons, especially autumn, subtly communicates that life is an endless cycle of birth and death. But the honest treatment of the narrator’s feelings, conveyed both through the text and through Burrowes’ mood-sensitive cut-paper illustrations, recognizes that death isn’t easy just because it’s normal.
When, at the end of the book, a new spring and the reappearance of Grandma’s flowers bring hope to the narrator, the resolution feels both organic and uplifting. The message to young girls is that it’s natural to miss and mourn someone they’ve loved, but they can find comfort and hope in memory and in the renewal of life around them.
It’s an inspiring way to approach death, grieving, and the process of healing.