Mary Jo's Grandmother, written by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Eleanor Mill

Mary Jo's Grandmother, written by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Eleanor Mill

Mary Jo's Grandmother is a quiet little picture book about family, about how we share and pass down and create tradition, about the seasons and rural life, about aging, and about problem-solving. It opens with a reference to a conflict that so many families face as time moves along and the older generation gets, you know, older—the point at which children start worrying about their parents' health and safety and well-being:

Whenever Mary Jo's mother or father told her that she should move into town, Grandmother always said, "I've lived in this house almost all my life and I'm too old to move now. I'm content here."

Title page spread from Mary Jo's Grandmother. [Mary Jo's grandmother is knitting in a rocking chair on the left; Mary Jo and her dog are sitting on a rug on the right; the title, author, and publisher information are above Mary Jo's head.]

Title page spread from Mary Jo's Grandmother. [Mary Jo's grandmother is knitting in a rocking chair on the left; Mary Jo and her dog are sitting on a rug on the right; the title, author, and publisher information are above Mary Jo's head.]

After that little bit of foreshadowing, Udry pulls back and gives us a quick overview of some of the things Mary Jo and her grandmother and the rest of the family do together over the course of the year. It's loosely arranged by season, starting with spring, ending with winter, which also works to reinforce the themes about age and aging:

Blackberry spread from Mary Jo's Grandmother. Yes, I primarily included it because of the blackberries. [Mary Jo and Jeff—context clues suggest he's her older brother, but it's not specified in the text—are on the left, with Mary Jo holding out a basket of blackberries; Mary Jo's grandmother is on the right, rolling out crust for a pie.]

Blackberry spread from Mary Jo's Grandmother. Yes, I primarily included it because of the blackberries. [Mary Jo and Jeff—context clues suggest he's her older brother, but it's not specified in the text—are on the left, with Mary Jo holding out a basket of blackberries; Mary Jo's grandmother is on the right, rolling out crust for a pie.]

Throughout, Udry's descriptions are vivid and accessible, so that even readers with no frame of reference for picking berries or feeding chickens or drinking homemade sassafras tea—which she describes as "pink and tasted a lot like root beer"—will feel like they're right there with the characters. Speaking as someone who has lived in rural areas for most of her life, the details ring entirely true, ESPECIALLY the passages about the horrorshow of terror that is the domestic goose:

Mary Jo's Grandmother supports my theory that geese are Evil. [Black-and-white double-spread illustration with Mary Jo kneeling on the ground surrounded by chickens and holding a chick, while a goose terrorizes her dog on the left.]

Mary Jo's Grandmother supports my theory that geese are Evil. [Black-and-white double-spread illustration with Mary Jo kneeling on the ground surrounded by chickens and holding a chick, while a goose terrorizes her dog on the left.]

After a big family Christmas dinner, Mary Jo stays the night at her grandmother's house for the first time. I loved this next passage as well as the picture that accompanies it, because when I was little, my grandmother had a pair of those crane scissors as well, and I was just as fascinated by them as Mary Jo is:

Black-and-white illustration featuring Mary Jo, her grandmother, and Mary Jo's rad new sewing kit. (I have the tomato pincushion! And the crane scissors!)

Black-and-white illustration featuring Mary Jo, her grandmother, and Mary Jo's rad new sewing kit. (I have the tomato pincushion! And the crane scissors!)

Mary Jo looked again at the new sewing basket her mother had given her. It was filled with needles, pins, and spools of thread. She especially loved the little old-fashioned scissors shaped like a crane. His sharp bill snipped off the thread.

There's just something so, so perfect about the way Udry describes them—"his sharp bill snipped off the thread"—that line especially gets me, the details and the rhythm of the words makes it feel like a prose-poem. 

The next morning, all of Mary Jo's parents' concerns about the dangers of living alone and out in the middle of nowhere without a telephone are proven right when Mary Jo's grandmother takes a fall and injures her leg—a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that there was a significant snowstorm that night. Throughout, though, the tone and pacing—and the reactions of the characters—still stay calm and quiet:

"I'm coming! I'll help you," said Mary Jo.

"Take the biscuits out of the oven first," said Grandmother.

Mary Jo hurried to the oven, opened the door, and lifted the biscuits out with Grandmother's new Christmas pot holders. Then she hurried to the pantry.

Mary Jo notices that the pantry where her grandmother is lying is cold, and gets blankets and so on on her own—she shows initiative and problem-solving throughout, and I loved how it was portrayed so matter-of-factly and mostly without comment. She sees a problem, thinks of a solution, and enacts it. Throughout, despite the crisis, neither character stops thinking about the comfort and needs of the other:

"Thank goodness you are here, Mary Jo. Just let me rest while I think of what to do. I'll be all right. You go and have some breakfast while the biscuits are hot."

And then, when Mary Jo's grandmother either doesn't think to send Mary Jo out for help—or doesn't want to resort to it—Mary Jo just stands up and does it, solving small problems on the way again and again, like stuffing too-big boots with newspaper so that she can walk in them.

I don't know if the pointy red hat and the footprints and the perspective in this spread are a call-back to The Snowy Day or not—it was published almost a decade before Mary Jo's Grandmother—but that's certainly what they made me think of:

Two-page spread of Mary Jo slogging through the snow on her way to the main road.

Two-page spread of Mary Jo slogging through the snow on her way to the main road.

Image from The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. (Apologies for the shadow on the left.)

Image from The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. (Apologies for the shadow on the left.)

Nutshell: Everything about this book is so warm and lovely that I've got heart-eyes.

Next up, maybe:

Mary Jo's Grandmother is the third in a series of picture books about Mary Jo; the first two are What Mary Jo Shared and What Mary Jo Wanted. OBVIOUSLY, I'll be tracking those down, as well as A Tree is Nice, which won the 1957 Caldecott, and The Moon Jumpers, which was awarded a 1960 Caldecott Honor.

Lists & so on:

Award: Coretta Scott King Award, 1971 Author Honor

Resource: Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Resource: Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature