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Thomas Bloor

Friday, March 04, 2005

GRANDPA by John Burningham

A story about death for the under fives, this is the picture book at its most sophisticated. Burningham both writes and illustrates, and here he demonstrates the full potential of the combined form. Employing a range of visual codes to create layers of meaning, Grandpa tells the touching story of the friendship between grandchild and grandparent, two people at opposite ends of their lives, and the telling is achieved with a breathtaking economy of means. The decidedly non-linear plot unfolds via lines of parallel dialogue and meanders its way to its heartrending conclusion; a wordless page depicting the child solemnly contemplating Grandpa’s empty chair. To end here would be unbearably bleak. Catharsis is achieved on the last page, in a beautiful and mysterious final image. Through a pastoral landscape of green fields overlooking the sea, with the sun setting (or is it rising?) in the sky above, a child pushes an old fashioned pram containing a smiling baby. Is this a flashback to Grandpa’s infancy? An affirmation that life goes on? A suggestion of rebirth? The fact that this last page is open to so many interpretations only adds to its strength and provides a fine ending for a book of great subtlety and depth.


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