Grumble Boats is a gorgeous new picture book from Susannah McFarlane, illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie. Here, Susannah shares her inspiration for this personal and tender story about a grandma with a special way of helping little ones cope with their grumbles.
My mum was an excellent grandma. Not so much because she bought treats (even though she did) and not because she let the kids get away with stuff (because she didn’t), but because she gave her grandchildren time.
She would read books, she would encourage them to read books, she would tell stories, she would sing songs, she would watch them tackle new crafts. She had time, she made time, for them.
She would spend time doing things with the kids that other people wouldn’t, like follow them on their make-believe. Best example – I once returned home from work to find the kids on all fours drinking milk from bowls on the floor.
‘We’re dogs,’ said Emma, then three-years-old, simply.
‘And quite good dogs, too,’ added Mum.
Perhaps most importantly, Mum had time to listen to the kids. Time to listen to their (often quite long-winded) accounts of small happenings, time to hear their slowly forming understandings of things and, above all, time to listen when things weren’t going so well. She was particularly interested in taking time to help untangle unhelpful thoughts.
In fact, looking back, that was probably Mum’s special gift: she could spot ‘out of sorts’ at 20 paces. She noticed the grandchild (and the adult child) who was a little quiet – the one who didn’t join in the family dinner table banter, who seemed a little tangled – and she always wanted to know why, what was happening for them and, if possible, if she could help untangle them.
I wanted to honour that careful, loving untangling in Grumble Boats – the special quality Mum had of curiously meeting someone in their grumble and helping them find a way out of it. Far from dismissing it, she encouraged sitting in it, dealing with it and, only then, moving on.
That’s what the grandma in the story is doing as she watches Emma furiously draw her grumble and then exclaims: ‘Goodness me! That looks very grumpy! Brilliant, Emma!’
Beloved US children’s TV host Mr Rogers once said ‘if you can name a feeling, you can manage it.’ Wise words. I think Mum and Mr Rogers would have got on well.
This slightly battered picture of Mum and Emma, then three years old, captures much of all this. The two striding off, adventure most likely ahead, and total trust on the part of Emma: if Grandma had your hand, all was, or at least would be, well.
Mum died in 2011 and in losing her, our family lost their emotional head. I wrote in my eulogy: ‘Mum saw us, all of us, and loved us anyway. Being seen fully and loved is a wonderful thing.’
Grumble Boats is for Mum but it is also for all Grandmas and Grandpas who give their time to look and listen and love.
Oh, and Mum never made a grumble boat – but I reckon she would think it was a really good idea.