From Little Red Riding Hood to Heidi, grandparents have always been an important part of fantasy.
Sometimes acting as surrogate parents, they’re authority figures who are still kind and understanding to a young protagonist, or they're partners in crime who nevertheless dispense some much-needed wisdom (and homemade goodies). When your parents are too strict and won’t let you go to the Enchanted Forest at night, who is there to help leave the back door unlocked?
When your evil teacher is threatening the family of fairies who live in the walls, who builds a fairy-sized bungalow in their attic and welcomes the new family to the neighbourhood?
Grandparents, that’s who.
And so, in honor of the relatives who will always have your back, here are five of my personal favorites from children’s fantasy literature.
1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
The grandparents: Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandma Georgina, and Grandpa George all live together, confined by old age to one big bed in Charlie Bucket’s house. Though they can’t move, they are a consistently stable and comforting (and prominent, what with the size of their bed) presence in the home.
Why they're great: When Charlie wins the Golden Ticket, Grandpa Joe, overjoyed, leaps out of bed for the first time in twenty years. The experience has quite rejuvenated him, and he proceeds to accompany Charlie on his tour of the chocolate factory. In the sequel, all four grandparents (three of them still in their bed) follow Charlie into the titular elevator. After a brief bout of space travel, the three grandparents who still, even after defeating the aliens known as Vermicious Knids, refuse to leave their bed.
They are offered Wonka-Vite, a pill that will make them younger, and, greedy, they eat too much and shave eighty years off their lives…but Grandma Georgina was only 78 to begin with. Charlie and Wonka then travel to Minusland with an antidotebut even once everyone is back to their original ages, the three silly grandparents still refuse to leave the bed. They only change their minds when an invitation to a White House dinner arrives—maybe not that exciting, considering their outer space exploits, but at least it gets them vertical.
Words of wisdom: Grandpa Joe delivers endless bon mots, making fun of the greedy slobs who won the other tickets so mercilessly it would be mean if it weren’t so very true (remember Veruca Salt?) Still, we remember Grandpa Joe best for his wonder and optimism: “I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.”
2. Cat’s Eye Corner by Terry Griggs
The grandparents: When the cab driver taking Olivier to the boy’s grandfather’s house realizes where exactly they’re going, he offers to take Olivier back to the train station free of charge. And thus the scene is set for Olivier’s summer spent at Cat’s Eye Corner. Having convinced his parents that visiting with his grandfather—and his grandfather’s new third wife Sylvia de Whosit of Whatsit (who is witch)—is a good idea, Olivier spends his vacation exploring a house with everything from flavor-changing drinks and (pre-Potter) rooms that move around to buildings that are bigger on the inside (how very Who) and girls that live in boats…in trees. The weird and wacky house and its characters are the grandparents’ greatest contribution: a wondrous environment perfect for summer vacation adventure.
Why they're great: Besides opening up their home to an inquisitive young guest, the grandparents encourage him to explore, and Sylvia even sends Olivier off on a scavenger hunt (ostensibly to keep him from getting bored, which doesn't seem possible given how cool the house is). Olivier’s sidekick is Murray Shaeffer—the fountain pen—and together they're constantly on the lookout for Inklings, fairy-like creatures who tamper with words (much to the chagrin of the property’s cats, who have gone from pets to poets and must now speak in rhyme). The grandparents’ laissez-faire attitude allows Olivier to spread his wings and save dictionaries everywhere from getting rewritten.
Words of wisdom: Step-step-stepgramma Sylvia keeps Olivier delightfully on his toes. She spends the entire novel throwing around cryptic remarks that make Cat’s Eye Corner seem all the more magical. A grown woman leading a young boy to think he might be eaten for dinner instead of merely being a guest is debateably cruel, but fits the topsy-turvey feel of the house perfectly.
3. The Witches by Roald Dahl
The grandparent: Roald Dahl strikes again! After the death of the boy’s parents, he goes to live with his grandmother in Norway, where she takes care of him, offers him consolation, and become his very best friend.
What makes her great: Aside from being exactly the type of comforting, stable presence the boy needs, Grandmother seems like she knows everything about the mysterious, dangerous world of witches. She takes great pains to impress upon the boy how important it is to stay safe, and gives him the tools to do so. When (spoiler alert!) the boy is turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch, Grandmother helps him (in spite of a nasty case of pneumonia) destroy every single witch in Great Britain, effectively ending their rule of terror over British children forever.
She's both accomplice and protector, and the boy owes her everything: “The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you (however peculiar I may look) is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother." He doesn’t mind his reduced mousy lifespan since it means he’ll never have to live without her. Plus, she sounds really cool: “I gazed up at my grandmother who sat there like some ancient queen on her throne.”
Words of wisdom: Aside from some excellent advice along the lines of “don’t talk to strangers” and “don’t bathe more than once a month,” Grandmother teaches us that “the most important thing you should know about real witches is this—now listen very carefully! Real witches dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses, and they work in ordinary jobs.” Basically, be careful and don’t judge a book by its cover.
4. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
The grandparent: After the death of their father, Emily and Navin’s mother moves them into the house of their great-grandfather, Silas Charnon. Silas mysteriously disappeared one day after locking himself inside the house and, before long, the children’s mother has been lured into a ominous door in the basement. In order to rescue her, Emily and Navin follow, and end up in a world with robot houses, talking animals, and everything else you could possibly expect from a fantasy world. As it turns out, Silas is has been in this strange new land the whole time, and though he hasn’t yet died, he’s ill and hasn’t got long left.
What makes him great: Before dying, Silas entrusts the mysterious amulet to Emily, passing the responsibility of the gem, and by extension the world’s safety, to her. When he dies, it's up to the children to rescue their mother, protect Silas’ robotic companions, and stay safe while doing it. Silas earns his spot on the list for kickstarting this sprawling adventure that takes place over several graphic novels.
Words of wisdom: Unlike most adults, Silas has complete faith in Emily and Navin’s abilities. Right before his death, he tells robot-rabbit Miskit not to worry: “You’re not alone. So calm yourself. You fears are unwarranted. The moment I saw their faces, I knew everything was going to be alright. That’s the feeling I’ve been waiting for my entire life.”
5. Into the Land of Unicorns by Bruce Coville
The grandparent: When Cara Hunter and her grandmother Ivy Morris are followed home from the library, they hide in a church, trying to lose their pursuer. It doesn’t work, but Gramma Ivy knows what to do: Cara must take her amulet, climb up to the bell tower and, as the bell finishes tolling, leap off the tower into Luster, the land of the unicorns. There she must find the Old One and bring her a very important message.
What makes her great: With her grandmother’s blessing, Cara joins forces with Lightfoot, a teenaged unicorn, and other creatures for an quest that ultimately becomes an attempt to save all the unicorns in Luster. On the way, she learns more about her grandmother who (spoiler alert!) was once a unicorn named Amalia Flickerfoot, turned into a human at a young age. Now known as the Wanderer, Gramma Ivy eventually reassumes her place as Queen of the unicorns. I’m probably not the only unicorn-obsessed 8 year old to have read this, but the possibility that a trusted relative could secretly be Queen of the unicorns is still really, really exciting to me.
Words of wisdom: Common to most of these stories is the grandparents’ unwavering faith in their protégés, and Ivy Morris is no exception. Barely hesitating, she sends her granddaughter on a mission to save an entire world, teaching her the phrase that will always get her to the place where she belongs: “Luster, take me home.”
Honorable mention goes to Holes
, by Louis Sachar, for a great-great-grandfather who starts the family curse, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time,
for Mmes. Whatsit, Who, and Which, the grandmotherliest immortal beings you’ll ever come across, no matter where in space you travel (and, if we do say so ourselves, Abraham Portman, hollow-slayer
Did I forget any others? Add your favorites in the comments!