age range: 5-9
genre: picture book; contemporary fiction; Alzheimer’s disease
James and Grandpa’s shared heritage and stories of their loving family shine. What is clear is that their memories matter—to them and ultimately to readers. A moving and meaningful way to talk about a situation many families will face.
— Kirkus, starred review
Oliveros never sugarcoats the difficulties of dementia, but young listeners are most likely to note this mixed-race family’s gracious understanding of Grandpa’s troubles, as well as the joy they take in retelling his tales.
[The] distinctive look, combined with the simple, plaintive prose, offers genuine poignancy.
— Publisher’s Weekly
Jessie and I have known each other since the early days of blogging. It’s so fun to host her today! Jessie, please tell us about your book.
My debut picture book, THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, came out earlier this fall from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. It’s illustrated by the amazing Dana Wulfekotte. (She also had her debut this year, as an author-illustrator!)
In THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, balloons are a metaphor for memories. James is very proud of his balloons, especially the ones that carry his favorite memories. He is also proud of the number of balloons his grandpa has—he’s lived so long, so he has a lot of them! James loves to listen to the stories inside of Grandpa’s balloons. Then, one day, he notices that Grandpa’s balloons are floating away. James tries to catch them but he can’t. However, in the end, James finds a way to reclaim Grandpa’s memories.
What inspired you to write this story?
The inspiration came to me a couple summers ago while visiting my grandpa with my kids. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years before that. Alzheimer’s can be confusing for a child. I have to remind my children what to expect when we visit their great-grandfather.
He will repeat questions.
He won’t know your names.
At the time, I had been dabbling in picture books and trying to find an agent for my middle grade. I remember looking at my grandpa chewing on a toothpick, and that’s when it occurred to me that I should write a children’s book about Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know it would be metaphorical and include balloons—not yet, that came later.
But when it did come to me and the way it all came together in a manuscript, well—I feel like the message was quite a bit bigger than me. I think there was definitely some heavenly inspiration there, too.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
This book was wholly formed by my own personal experiences with my grandfather. I think having the subject matter so ingrained in my heart helped the words flow quickly and cohesively. My grandpa represented so much about my childhood—especially the days that we would spend in his little town in Kansas, visiting him and my grandmother. Those visits, that town, are roughly half of my soul—and the book has my soul in it. So, if you count living my life and loving my Grandpa “research,” then there’s your answer!
What are some special challenges associated with writing about Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s and memory loss are very big topics for a picture book. I wanted a child to be able to relate. I felt like a straight-forward story wasn’t very interesting, but balloons…I mean, what child doesn’t love balloons? Once the child has established that the balloons hold the memories, the transition to Grandpa losing his balloons is easier to comprehend rather than just, “Grandpa is losing his memories.”
Furthermore, I’ve had readers tell me they cried through the book. I hope that it’s been a solace for some, especially those with a family member with Alzheimer’s. I think sad books are important! But I wanted to be sure to end THE REMEMBER BALLOONS on a hopeful note. Grandpa might have lost all of his memories, but James is now carrying the balloons that Grandpa shared with him. James gets to carry on Grandpa’s memories, even when Grandpa no longer has them.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Well, the most obvious topic is Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. But THE REMEMBER BALLOONS is also very much about family and carrying on the legacy of those who have gone before us. I believe recording our personal histories as well as the stories we hear is very important, and I hope this book inspires people to do this! It’s definitely a way of holding onto ours and others’ balloons—no matter what happens.