Nigel Gray and Bethan Welby – Phyllis and Grace

Scallywag Press, London, UK, 2022

This gentle picture book, written by Nigel Gray and illustrated by Bethan Welby, subtly conveys messages of kindness, neighbourliness, friendship across generations, the importance of family and the blessing of an open-hearted and compassionate view of the world – as seen by this story’s child Grace.

Author Nigel Gray spoke to Barbie about Phyllis and Grace

Grace and her family are neighbours to the elderly Phyllis. Their almost daily acts of kindness help them and the reader to understand that Phyllis is suffering from dementia and that she is increasingly confused and unable to care for herself.

The kindness mostly takes the form of deliveries of meals and baked goods, but Grace’s Dad is also on hand to fix an electrical problem. Grace is also happy to spend regular time in conversation with Phyllis and in this way she learns little bits about Phyllis and her life.

The transition in the text to Phyllis’s move to an old people’s home is flagged by her sitting in her kitchen waiting to be picked up by ‘Dennis’ for a trip to France, a confused memory of travels long ago with her husband. Was it a honeymoon or a holiday with her Father?

With the help of her Dad, Grace continues to visit her friend Phyllis in the old people’s home, apparently unfazed by the fact that Phyllis isn’t always sure who Grace is – a daughter, a granddaughter?

On one such visit she meets Phyllis’s son David and the conversation leads to the time when Phyllis kept and rode horses, a shared interest with Grace. Grace is allowed to visit the horses and have a short ride on the ageing Starbright, now retired to a pleasant grassy field to live out her days. (Yes! The irony.)

I love this book for its gentleness, its compassionate view of the world, so much an expression of its author. What I also like so much is the respect the author shows for his readers, never lecturing or hectoring, never stating categorically what we must think, but assuming that his thoughts on the subject will be gleaned from the story itself.

Bethany Welby’s whimsical, soft focus painting style with her cast of astutely drawn characters is a perfect pairing for Nigel’s work. The pictures tell their own detailed and rich story and will provide young readers and listeners with plenty to find.

The story will engender much discussion between adults and children in homes and classrooms. It’s simply but beautifully told, much of it through believable conversations between Phyllis and Grace.

It’s a deeply affecting tale and one we older readers can identify with all too well, drawing on our experiences of our own ageing and the ageing of relatives and friends. There’s a terrible longing in this work  – for that which is lost – but also a heart-aching tenderness for what could be.

May we all care for one another in this way.

Thank you to NewSouth Books for Scallywag Press for my review copy and to Nigel for spending time with me to talk about this gentle book with its quietly spoken moral purpose and about a lifetime of activism.