But when Shu Lin's grandpa comes to school and shows the class his amazing Chinese paintings, everything changes.... With a stunning double-gatefold spread revealing a beautiful Chinese picture, this uplifting story shows the transformative power of art and imagination in developing cultural understanding and empathy.
Reviewed by Caroline Bradley
Shu Lin’s Grandpa is a simple story about starting school, with a gently inclusive theme and an introduction to Chinese culture. Shu Lin arrives at school with her pink coat and matching lunch bag.
The opening double spread completely captures the feeling of being new , as Shu Lin, sandwiched between her parents looks towards the chaotic crowd of children. The distance accentuates how far away she initially feels.
At first the children are unsympathetic and curious about the new girl’s strange food, which is of course perfectly realistic. Subsequently, Dylan, the narrator, remembers how he felt on his first day, showing empathy towards that ‘new’ feeling and drawing attention to a relatable emotion for all children, particularly those who have started a new school alone.
Inclusivity runs throughout the story. The school has a diverse community and although the children appear to be wearing a uniform they all look quite different. One thing that really struck me was the texture and diversity portrayed through the hair: bunches, dreadlocks, plaits poking out of a hijab, black, blonde, red, curly, straight. Individuality is celebrated and as well as relating to the children, the reader can find many clues in the body language and expressions of all the characters which would make pondering their stories very easy to do.
Yu Rong’s illustrations tell so much of the story. From the exquisite opening endpaper detailing dragons and pagodas, to the small details such as the artists roll on the title page. There are so many things to spot in the pictures: the use of colour is particularly clever and draws the eye to both key elements and seemingly incidental yet highly realistic background details. The children’s individuality is portrayed in so many ways: from their lunch box designs to their preferred toys. Eagle eyed readers will spot all sorts of Chinese artefacts such as the Chinese fan held by the teacher, which is the auspicious colour red, along with Shu Lin’s hairband and chopsticks. The panda features repeatedly too – which could inspire discussion around Chinese animals, endangered species and sustainability.
The portrayal of art as a universal language is all inclusive. Communication between the non-English speaking Grandpa and the children in the class is all done through the sharing of paintings and the stories they depict. There is no need to speak the same verbal language.
Shu Lin’s Grandpa is a delightful and transformative story that I hope will pour positivity on the Chinese community and enlighten children about this rich culture. The combination of Matt’s sensitive text and Yu Rong’s captivating artwork make this a heart-warming tale that could be read at any time in an EYFS or KS1 classroom but I think links very well with a focus on reading for Empathy, Chinese New Year or when a new member is joining the class, particularly if English isn’t their first language.
Matt Goodfellow has had much success with his engaging poetry collections Chicken on the Roof and Bright Bursts of Colour and recent collaboration Being Me : Poems About Thoughts, Worries and Feelings. You can read his moving blog post here.