Favorite Book Friday: Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs

I should begin this article by warning that you will probably find it depressing (but hopefully informative and potentially helpful).  Also, there are no pictures.  Nothing seemed appropriate.

I know December is supposed to be a time of joy, excitement, fun, and family togetherness.  But, as a metaphor for life, December and winter also represent one’s final years and death. 

The subject of death has inordinately been in my thoughts for a few months now, and the close of the year has really ramped up my preoccupation with the topic.

I promise I’m not a weirdo who is just sitting around thinking about death for no reason.  I have reasons.  This year, particularly this last quarter, has kept the topic on my mind, as an unusually large number of close family members and friends have had or are facing serious health issues.

I’ve mentioned my husband’s grandmother has advanced Alzheimer’s.  While she is otherwise healthy, we all know what the ultimate outcome of that situation will be.  Another relative just had surgery for prostate cancer and is awaiting pathology reports to see whether the cancer was contained.  Still another close relative is having some severe lung and breathing problems.  In that situation we, thankfully, found out it’s not cancer.  My mother has some undiagnosed, potentially grave, issue going on (and I’ll leave it at that since it’s so complicated).  There is a more distant, though still dear, relative who has battled a very serious cancer twice and is waiting to see if it’s all gone this time.  My aunt had a major heart surgery a few years ago and has had struggles and a couple of long hospitalizations since.  We also remain in prayer for a friend who is facing some intense surgery and treatment for cancer and some close family friends awaiting news of their beloved grandfather who is in the care of hospice.  Lastly, my grandmother has raised the issue of her own death more than once recently.

I’ve written about Granny, my rock, before.  She’s not in the best health, but there’s nothing seriously wrong with her.  However, she comes from a huge family and, of her many brothers and sisters, four remain.  She is second oldest of her surviving siblings, and the brother who is older than her has mild Alzheimer’s and a return of cancer that he has decided to not treat.  Granny turned 79 last month.  I don't think that's terribly old, but she does.  It makes her older than any of her sisters and some brothers who have already passed away.  She is thinking of and speaking of death, which makes me think of it.

So hopefully you understand why this subject is on my mind.  And since I’ve been thinking about it, it has naturally influenced my decisions in many areas, including this Favorite Book Friday selection.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (creator of Strega Nona) is a book we bought earlier this year. When we initially read the book I instantly, and generally, thought it would be a great tool to help children face a loved one’s impending death or even deal with a sudden loss.  Now, it has been on my mind quite a bit as I consider the need to reread it, possibly several times, to my children in preparation for some specific situations that may arise in the coming year or two

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Though the book deals with death as part of the circle of life, neither I nor the kids felt overly sad after reading it.  The book draws from the author’s own childhood, and I was more positively affected by his close relationships with his great-grandmother (Nana Upstairs) and grandmother (Nana Downstairs) than I was upset by their deaths.

A very brief summary of the book is that little Tommy regularly visits his great-grandmother and grandmother who live together.  Since his great-grandmother is quite old, she is confined to her bedroom upstairs—hence Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs.  Tommy clearly loves is grandmothers, especially his great-grandmother, and cherishes the time he spends with them. 

While he is still a child Nana Upstairs dies.  Nana Downstairs passes away after he reaches adulthood.  Yes, those parts are a little sad.  My throat closes up a bit while reading about the things Tommy does with Nana Upstairs, how he views her, and his reaction to her death.  So much of those parts of the book remind me of my own grandmother and the relationship I have with her.  Yes, it's also a touch difficult to get through the sentence telling how Tommy began calling Nana Downstairs just Nana, because there was no longer a Nana Upstairs.  And, yes, my throat constricts even more when, at the end, adult Tommy is remembering both his grandmothers and realizes they are now both Nana Upstairs. 

BUT I can make it through the book without crying.  The sad is very balanced with the happy and sweet, and most kids don't have the life experience to see the grief in the book as an adult would.  In fact, I think the book is successful at relaying these deaths to children as a natural part of life and teaching about the value of spending time together and creating memories.  There’s no way I can express how well this book introduces death to children, but it does an excellent job.

In closing, I apologize if I’ve thoroughly ruined your day!  I debated writing this.  Ultimately, I concluded that death is a part of life and it doesn’t wait for a good time.  I know as I’m dealing with these circumstances and thoughts right now, others are too.  Perhaps this is a book from which others with small children can benefit as they face the thief of death.  And it’s not as if January would be a better time for this.  It’s depressing on its own; it’s still winter, and Christmas is over.

As always comments are appreciated.  In fact, I look forward to them.  Go ahead!  Cheer me up!

wildish child favorite book friday nana upstairs and nana downstairs dee signature with heart

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1 comment

  • I need to get this book. Don’t you wish we could just protect our kids from this kind of sadness? ???Especially this time of year. It feels especially like the magic of Christmas is being stolen by death this year. It’s a comfort to have hope of Heaven after death. This world is not my home..:


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