Nadine Aisha Jassat’s The Stories Grandma Forgot (and How I Found Them) is a beautiful, tender verse novel about family, memory and identity. 12-year-old Nyla Elachi lives with her mother and paternal grandmother Farida, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Nyla’s father died in a car accident when she was four years old and she has no real memories of him, but a school project about family history inspires her to start asking more questions. When Farida thinks she has seen Nyla’s father at the supermarket and Nyla overhears her mother talking about a secret ‘promise’ on the phone, Nyla starts to wonder if there is something she is not being told.
This is a book which explores a large number of issues but with great sensitivity. I loved Nyla and Farida’s relationship as Nyla compares Farida’s dementia to ‘time travel: / like Grandma’s mind is journeying / to another time or place‘ and there are many moments of joy and connection amidst Farida’s forgetfulness. At the same time, Jassat shows the feelings of loss this entails, as Nyla feels like Farida is ‘slowly walking away’, and the strain that caring for someone with dementia can place on a family, as we see Nyla’s mum working extra shifts to pay for Farida’s daycare and Nyla picking up more caring responsibilities, telling herself that ‘I can do this. I’m twelve years old. I can do this.’ The poem in which Nyla describes putting her grandmother to bed is particularly touching as their normal roles are reversed.
Jassat also presents the prejudice and discrimination Nyla experiences as someone of mixed racial heritage: her mum is white but her dad and grandma are ‘Southern African and Indian and Arab and Malay.’ Nyla is cruelly singled out by school bully Harry who deliberately mispronounces her name and tells her that ‘you’re only half one of us […] / and half one of them. / You’re not even a whole thing. / You’re nothing.‘ Nyla initially struggles with feelings of alienation and dislocation because of this. However, with the support of her friends (including the delightful librarian Miss Haldi) she ultimately comes to embrace her identity, describing herself as ‘fully myself – / a constellation of Nyla, / full of dream swirls and bright sparks. / Not nothing, but everything. / Not half. / Whole.’
The verse form is so well suited to this story – at times it propels the plot forward but it also offers many moments of reflection and introspection as Nyla wrestles with her identity. Every line feels perfectly crafted and Jassat’s writing is often moving and profound. I’m sure it would be a great text to read aloud too, and it could make an excellent class reader for older primary or younger secondary readers: it is likely that in every class there will be children who have family members with dementia and this book would open up space for them to discuss their emotions and experiences around this.
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