Book Review: Pearls Marigolds for Grandpa puts death, grief into soft focus

"Pearl's Marigolds for Grandpa" is the second Pearl book by Zalben, who has written and illustrated numerous children's books about Jewish subjects. The book, which is for children of all faiths, shows the effect of death on a child who is deeply saddened but has difficulty with the concept of finality.

The day after Grandpa's death, Pearl doesn't want to go to the funeral and goes to school instead. But she can't concentrate. She can't remember the words to the pledge of allegiance. She has trouble putting more than her name on a painting in art class. She doesn't want to eat or play at lunchtime. When her friends ask why, she tells them and receives hugs.

Later, she goes to her grandparents' house, where the family is sitting shivah. But Grandpa's chair is empty. Pearl wonders where he is and why Uncle Henry is laughing and everybody is eating. Uncle Henry's laughter makes her angry. She picks up Grandpa's hat, puts it on and slips away to her grandparents' bedroom, where she sees the book he'd been reading and his well-worn slippers. She finds comfort in the objects that smell like Grandpa.

When the visitors leave and her mother puts her to bed, Pearl hears the rain and worries that Grandpa's going to be cold. Then she wonders, "Who will I play checkers with? Who will read me stories for as long as I want? Who will send me marigold seeds this spring?"

Papa answers, "I will."

With understanding family members who can recognize Pearl's grief while experiencing their own, she works through the loss in a healthy way.

A week after Grandpa's death, Pearl and Papa plant marigolds. When Grandma comes to visit, Pearl shows her the seedlings. Then Pearl tells her grandmother that she's going to play checkers and plant marigolds with her grandchildren "and read stories way past their bedtimes. Just like Grandpa."

Grandma embraces Pearl and tells her, "Grandpa's still alive…Through you."

Zalben's delightful pictures have a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century flavor, framed by flower borders. Accompanied by spare but thoughtful prose, the book softens the subject of death, providing comfort. At the end, Zalben includes an appendix on burial and mourning customs throughout the world, beginning with the Jewish practices of shivah and the yahrzeit.

However, "Pearl's Marigolds" is not a specifically Jewish book and its Jewish details are subtle. Instead, it is designed to help children of all faiths understand that life involves passages. Just as the marigolds will come up again in the spring, "To everything there is a season."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].