The Runaways, by Ulf Stark, Illustrations by Kitty Crowther

I've been waiting for this book to be out for almost a year, since the publisher Gecko Press mentioned to me that Kitty Crowther was illustrating a story about a boy and his grandfather written by Swedish much-loved author Ulf Stark before his death in 2017.
I have a thing for stories featuring grandparents and I have loved Stark's book Can you whistle Johanna? (2005) and I couldn't miss The Runways, which has just been released in the UK on April 2nd.

The Story
Grandpa is at the hospital and hates it. He hates the food and the nurses, he's like a lion in a cage.

"Dad didn't often want to go, because Grandpa was difficult. He always had been. He got angry and shouted. He spat out the pills that could make him nice and calm. And he yelled at the nurses. His face turned bright red and he swore. Dad thought I didn't need any more swear words than ones I already knew.
I disagreed. I liked it when Grandpa got angry."

The narrator's voice is that of Gottfried Junior, a young, empathetic boy who secretly visits his grandfather at the hospital, genuinely enjoying his company and his bad manners.

" I like him not being the same as other people" says GJ while packing some pickled herrings for him and pretending to go to his weekly football training.
During one of his visits, Grandpa and Gottfried Junior plan to escape to the Island in the Stockholm Archipelago where he used to live with Grandma before she died, and before he broke his leg ending up in hospital.
Gottfried Junior plans the escape and his alibi in great detail, determined to make Grandpa's greatest wish come true.
Grandpa takes two hours and some painkillers swallowed  with sips of beer to climb up the path on Rocky Mountain where the family house he built himself sits.
That night the Runways sit at the dining table with a photo of grandma  and eat bread and butter, steamed potatoes and meatballs and a spoonful of lingonberry jam for dessert, the very last jar left in the cellar from the last batch grandma made before she died.
As they return to the hospital the day after, Grandpa starts his journey of reconciliation with the world, including his son: determined to learn how to speak nicely before he dies and meets his wife again, he learns beautiful new words which slowly replace swearing day after day, one teaspoon of jam after the other, getting ready to The last big escape.

I can't fully explain the beauty of this story. This is such an authentic, fun, irreverent yet moving tribute to the very special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren and beyond, to children's ability to connect with the elderly.
Gottfried Junior connects with his Grandfather in a way his dad can't do. He sees, acknowledges and respects his needs and wishes behind his grandfather's grumpiness. He lies to his grandparents, for the most important cause: help his grandpa die in peace.
It's so difficult to find the right pitch when talking about ageing, death and loss. Stark gets it just right.
Like in Can you whistle Johanna? the bittersweet story is delicately told yet unsweetened, the writing is clean and fluid, intense and well balanced: it can (and is supposed to) be told to young children as it's in no way disturbing, although it unties all the knots of ageing and death, avoiding the easy shortcut of religion.
Can we make peace with the life we had? Is there life after death? Which role can a child play in this?
Big themes are brought at child's height, holding on to humour and realism. Kitty Crawther stays true to this purpose, quietly illustrating the key scenes with her unique vibrant style.
The Runways [Original title Rymlingarna, 2nd April 2019]
Written by Ulf Stark
Illustrated by Kitty Crowther
Reading age: 6+
Themes: Grandparents Love, Relationship with the elderly, Death

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