For some reason, perhaps because friendship is so intensely important to young readers, first chapter books often tend to feature a very special friendship between two very different characters: Frog and Toad, Morris and Boris, Henry and Mudge, Mr. Putter and Tabby. My own easy-reader series, the Gus and Grandpa books, also focuses on a friendship, this time one that spans two generations, the friendship between seven-year-old Gus and seventy-year-old Grandpa.
It's a series that is very much grounded in real life. Grandpa in the books is based on our grandpa in real life, my 94-year-old father-in-law, who lives 20 miles from us in Golden, Colorado. Gus is a composite of my two boys when they were younger; we lived with Grandpa for almost a year when we first moved to Colorado, as we house-hunted in Boulder. Grandpa's house is little-boy paradise, complete with a ramshackle acre planted in corn and raspberries, an irrigation ditch, a tumbling-down shed, railroad tracks across the street, a dog, a cat.
When we finally moved away, I reassured Grandpa that we'd still see him all the time. "No, you won't," he said, in a grimly prophetic tone. "You'll get busy with all your own activities." Well, I vowed then and there that we would see Grandpa every week, and so we have. For years the boys and I drove down to see him every Thursday afternoon, and then, when we did begin to have too many after-school activities, we switched to Sunday afternoons. In twelve years now, I don't think I've missed more than a dozen weeks. Someof the happiest afternoons of my adult life have been spent sipping Grandpa's home-made chokecherry wine, chatting with Grandpa about the boys, the squirrels, Grandpa's memories, life -- while outside I can hear my boys playing. Out of those visits have grown the Gus and Grandpa books.
When I hesitantly gave Grandpa the first book, I wasn't sure how he'd react. He read it through and then turned to me and said, "People pay money for this?" He could hardly believe that the ordinary events of our everyday life together could be the stuff of a story. But he did admit to loving Catherine Stock's art. In fact, he liked her art so much that, although she had drawn Grandpa with a mustache while our Grandpa has no mustache, he has since grown a mustache just so he'll look more like Grandpa in the book!
It's been enormously satisfying for me to write these stories as a tribute to our Grandpa. My grandfathers both died before I knew them, and I'm still deeply saddened that my own father died before his grandsons were born. But now that I see my boys with Grandpa, I know how wonderful grandpas can be.
For a list of all the Gus and Grandpa Books, click here