Blogger Suzi Wackerbarth

Dementia (and love) in recent picture books

Some of the children you work with may have grandparents or neighbors who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This post is about books that talk about older people or grandparents who have dementia, and the children in their lives. We are learning so much these days about sensory play and toys, and how the senses are so important for folks with neurodiversity. Well, guess what? Dementia is another type of neurodiversity

We all have personal stories, and sometimes a blog is a place to share them. Today I will share just this: a lot of us have people in our lives who are losing words, or places, or memories. 

Read more: Dementia (and love) in recent picture books

A few weeks ago, I was working a holiday at our central location. While pulling books for people that had holds, the books that were jumping out at me to look at along the way were the books about grandparents with dementia or memory loss. Right now, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has a special exhibit in the Children’s Department, featuring a book called The Remember Balloons. People can write something they remember and put it on a tree. I snagged a copy of this book and wrote down the titles of other books as I encountered them. All the books I’m sharing were readily available in my library system, and in print and/or published in the past five years. I hope the books I highlight here will help you as you help children in your life at work and at home unpuzzle the loss of words, of places, and of memories. 

4 picture books that deal with children's relationship with people who have dementia. From left, first row: Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge; Coffee Rabbit Snowdrop Lost; 2nd row: What is Love; The Remember Baloons. Author's feet with ragged pink nail polish show up on either side of the books.
4 books and a pair of neurodiverse feet [Photo by Suzi Wackerbarth]

The first book I’m highlighting has nothing to do with memory or dementia on its surface. It is about different ways of looking at love. But for some reason, it clamored to be included in this post. I think because love can be so many things: fish, or donkey, or words, or memories, as shown in this book. What is Love? (Mac Barnett, ill. Carson Ellis, 2021) is the story of a boy and his grandmother. The boy asks his grandmother, what is love? She sends him out into the world to find the answer and each person he encounters has a different word for love. For the fisherman, it is the sensory feel of catching a fish. For the builder, it is the methodical but dynamic building of a house. For the dog, it is chasing a cat. The book has a sort of Where the Wild Things Are feel to it, the boy going out into the world and coming back to the smell of a warm meal and the sound of his dog barking. He takes off his shoes and feels the dirt with his toes. His grandmother asks him if he found the answer to his question and he says yes. I adore this book, and I hope it will help you as you work with all sorts of people that see love in so many different ways.

Onward, then. The next book is the oldest of the bunch, it came out in 1984 in Australia, and according to the author’s website, has never been out of print. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is the story of a boy who lives next door to “an old people’s home” (as written in the text, Mem Fox, ill. Julie Vivas). I adore Mem Fox and Julie Vivas both, and I don’t think this is their only collaboration. But that’s for you to Google search. Wilfred knew all the people who lived next door but his favorite was Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper “because she had four names just as he did.” One day, Wilfred overheard his parents talking about Miss Nancy, how sad it was that she’d lost her memory, which is one sign of dementia. Ah, perhaps this is why I liked What is Love? because now Wilfred goes on a treasure hunt of sorts among the old folks, asking each one “what is a memory?” Each person has a different answer. Based on their answers, Wilfred goes on a search to find something that makes him laugh, that makes him cry, something as precious as gold, something warm. And he takes these things (some seashells, a puppet, a medal, a freshly laid egg) in a basket to Miss Nancy, and one by one, with each object, she remembers things. So this book, in a non-didactic manner, shows the interplay between a very young person and a not so old 96-year-old. It’s beautiful, and should be on every library shelf. I may have to read it at storytime sometime soon.

The next book is a translation from Danish, Coffee Rabbit Snowdrop Lost (Betina Birkjaer, ill. Anna Margrethe Kjaergaard, 2021). This is the story of a little girl who visits her grandparents a lot. Her grandfather calls her Stump. Her grandparents are Kaj and Gerda, and Kaj has 123 different plants in his sunroom, “and he knows the name of each one by heart, in Latin.” Stump and her grandparents do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles. One day, Stump notices that Grandpa is losing his words. This next page is poignant: 

“Autumn arrives,
And as the trees lose 
More and more of their leaves,
Grandpa loses
More and more of his words.” 

The facing page shows Grandpa walking forward, as the word “coffee” drifts off his back, his granddaughter catches it. Turn the page and in the room of the 123 plants, Stump starts to collect all the words that Grandpa has lost. “It keeps me busy from morning to night.” She sits under a table with a box, and the room is beginning to look forgotten, abandoned, the flowers drooping. As the book continues, Grandpa gets worse, but Stump finds ways of recreating memories–for instance, dressing Grandma in her wedding dress and playing music. This is a beautiful book about recreating sensory memories for loved ones who are losing “[their] words.” At the back of the book is an informative writeup about dementia, useful for educators and parents alike. 

Last, but not least, is The Remember Balloons, (Jessie Oliveros, ill. Dana Wulfekotte, 2018). In this book, the first one to highlight a diverse family, memories are balloons of different colors. A biracial boy and his Black grandfather talk about their memories, until one day the grandfather’s balloons start to blow away. This book deals with some of the anger that happens when people start to lose their memories. When a silver balloon with a shared memory finally blows away, the text almost fills the entire page. 

“‘Why did you let it go?’ I yell. ‘That was our balloon!’ Then I sit on the sidewalk and cry.” 

The grandfather tries to reassure the boy. Eventually the White mother and Black father help the boy see that he now has more balloons, because he has his grandfather’s balloons as well. The book ends with the boy climbing into his grandfather’s lap, as he retells memories to the old man. 

And so life goes on. I hope this post has helped you see the neurodiversity of dementia and how sensory play and “quest”-ions help people who are losing their memories. 

How do you help the people in your life remember? Do you know of other good books that express the concept of dementia? 

2 comments

  1. Aryssa

    A new book–Remind Me–also captures this perfectly! It’s about an elephant and his grandmother-type elephant figure and how she always reminds him of things, but then he has to start reminding her.

    1. Suzi Wackerbarth Post author

      oh, thanks, Aryssa! I’ll look for it now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *