Ulf Stark (text) and Kitty Crowther (illustration), The Runaways, Gecko Press, August 2019, 129pp., RRP $18.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781776572342
The Runaways is an English translation of a novel originally written in Swedish by award winning author, Ulf Stark. It is the story of the bond between Gottfried Junior and his cantankerous, gruff and outspoken Grandpa, who is prone to using bad language.
Most people (including Grandpa Gottfried’s son i.e. Gottfried Junior’s Dad) find Grandpa’s gruffness hard to take and tend to avoid him. But Gottfried Junior feels a special connection with his Grandpa. They are both adventurous and not afraid to say what they think. The banter between them reveals a warm relationship and also serves to lighten the intensity of this serious story.
So, when Grandpa becomes seriously ill and is angry about being cooped up in hospital, Gottfried Junior devises a plan to help Grandpa escape. They return, for just one night, to the house that Grandpa built, with his own hands, on a scenic island. The house holds happy memories for Grandpa of time spent there with Grandma (now deceased). Grandpa also wants to retrieve from the house, a bottle of Grandma’s delicious lingonberry jam, which he imagines holds a little of Grandma’s being.
Whilst on the surface, the story is about a run-away adventure and a warm relationship between grandchild and grandparent, on a deeper level it is an end of life story, as Gottfried Junior helps Grandpa achieve his dying wish. There are some serious themes about love and loss and the importance of appreciating our loved ones when they are with us. The story also subtly explores how the dying process can be eased by respecting a dying person’s wishes and needs – Grandpa is more at peace after visiting the house on the island.
The text is accompanied by Kitty Crowther’s naïve style drawings in coloured pencil, which allow for enough realism to fit the serious theme, whilst also having the flexibility to depict explicit facial features, and so further develop the characters. This naïve drawing style also facilitates the depiction of evocative backgrounds – vivid red of the maple trees and soft light across the shore and water, suggest a sense of Swedish scenery. I especially like the image of memories of Grandma seated in a garden of soft, pastel coloured pencil lines and with rays of light shining from her.
This sensitive and thought provoking story will be meaningful to children aged 7+ who have experienced the aging or death of a beloved Grandparent.
Reviewed by Barbara Swartz