Grandad’s Island is a book about loss and death, and yet most of it is about happiness.
Syd pops round to his Grandad’s house all the time, but one day when he goes over he can’t find him anywhere. Eventually he tracks him down in the attic. Grandad opens a heavy metal door and invites Syd through, and suddenly they are both on the deck of a ship.
They sail it across the ocean to a beautiful tropical island where they explore and play together, and see many wonders.
Eventually Syd thinks it’s time to go home, but Grandad announces he is going to stay. Reluctantly Syd sails back across the ocean without him. Next time he goes to Grandad’s house, neither Grandad, nor the mysterious metal door, are there.
This is a classic book in the making. There are so many beautiful touches. When they reach the island, Grandad says he doesn’t feel he needs his stick any more. As he sails home, a dark cloud and grey weather give a sombre mood to Syd’s trip. There is intelligence behind every decision in the book, whether textual or artistic. The illustrations are exquisite, and every page feels like an art print. In addition, there are many things for children to spot throughout the book. The island is populated with plants and animals that can be seen in Grandad’s house at the beginning of the story (in this, the island is a dreamlike echo of real-life in much the same way as the land of the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are reflects Max’s bedroom) which have vanished from the house at the end. I also like the fact that while Grandad’s cat travels with him to the island, he too must return with Syd.
Grandad’s house feels empty without him; Benji Davies makes it clear that he is missed by Syd and that his absence is keenly felt, but the message here is that Grandad has gone to a better place, where he feels young and happy and is surrounded by animal friends. Death is another country, a distant and tropical isle.
I cannot imagine how this book would not be helpful for a child suffering the loss of a grandparent. I think it’s beautiful, subtle and poignant, and uses its analogy incredibly well. It’s a fully-realised, sophisticated gem of a picture book, and I do not think it could be better.
Buy it and read it now, or keep a copy to one side. I sincerely hope it won’t be needed, but I feel more confident about the prospect of dealing with a family death knowing I have it to hand. It’s a superb achievement, and one of which Benji Davies can be justly proud.