Shu Lin's Grandpa
“the understated text allows the art to shine . . . a lovely way to show how everyone has something to offer.”
Matt Goodfellow taught primary school and knows well the dynamics both in the classroom and on the playground. In spare words, he presents the story of coming to a new school in Shu Lin’s Grandpa. It’s always hard to be the new kid, but it’s even harder if, like Shu Lin, you come from another country, with a different culture and language. Yu Rong’s illustrations express well how Shu Lin doesn’t fit in with the other students, set apart visually as she is emotionally.
The understated text allows the art to shine, appropriately in a book about the power of art to communicate when words fail. When Shu Lin first arrived, she “didn’t speak English very well.” She’s different from the other students in other ways, too, not joining in at recess and eating strange foods for lunch: “We’d never seen anything like it.”
One student, Barney, plays the role of critic—“What’s up with her?”—while the narrator notices and empathizes with Shu Lin’s situation:
“I remembered my first day at school, when I had to stand in front of my new class.
‘Let’s make Dylan feel at home,’ my teacher had said.
But I hadn’t felt at home. I wondered if Shu Lin felt the same.”
The change happens when Shu Lin’s grandpa comes to the classroom to show his paintings. A stunning four-page fold-out reveals a classic Chinese landscape with a bright golden dragon in the sky. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that the old man is silent. Why say anything when the picture says so much more than words can capture? The students all eagerly start to paint, hoping to create their own dragons.
“Shu Lin sat down next to us.
She smiled and showed us how to hold the paintbrush properly. How to get smooth strokes for the dragon’s scales.”
Now Shu Lin is the expert, the one with insider knowledge, rather than the outsider, sitting on the edge of things. It’s a lovely way to show how everyone has something to offer, even if it isn’t obvious at first. The message is lightly delivered and not at all didactic, yet won’t be lost on young readers who will want to paint dragons of their own.
The book ends with the narrator dreaming of dragons: “deep in the distance of my dreams, I fire-danced with dragons.” The art evokes flying Chagall-like figures in a vivid sky, the perfect way to show how deeply art can touch us if we open ourselves to it.