David Grossman Takes Kids on a Journey With Death to Get Them to Savor Life

During the confusion of the pandemic, the Israeli literary giant found some comfort returning to his childhood. His new children’s book ‘Every Wrinkle Has a Story’ explores the power of the grandparent

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David Grossman. "I’m drawn to the child I once was; it’s a place I like to be in, even when it’s difficult and lonely."
David Grossman. "I’m drawn to the child I once was; it’s a place I like to be in, even when it’s difficult and lonely."Credit: Emil Salman
Neta Halperin
Neta Halperin
Neta Halperin
Neta Halperin

It sounds almost inconceivable, but every time David Grossman finishes writing a book, he’s seized by a furtive heretical thought, one whose very existence his readers would fiercely oppose.

“Suddenly I find myself thinking: Enough already, I’m 68, maybe it’s time I changed careers?” he says. “This thought constantly comes to me, because writing isn’t easy, it’s truly a dismantling of the soul – and its reconstruction – assuming all kinds of strange shapes.”

All sorts of alternative careers come to him, “a list of wild hallucinations that, fortunately, I’ll never fulfill,” he says with a laugh, and then gracefully repels any attempt to learn the roster. “In the end I have no real choice: I always return to writing, which, after all, is the right thing for me. I think I was fortunate – both in discovering this at a young age and in insisting that I continue with it.”

David Grossman. So why did Grossman write this book, of all topics? 'My wrinkles. I’ve reached an age where wrinkles are part of maturing and getting old.'Credit: Emil Salman

Grossman’s readers are also fortunate. Every two to four years he comes out with a new novel, and a children’s book every two years, more or less. In this way, many readers can read his books while sharing the other kind of book with the younger generation.

“For me, moving between writing a novel and a children’s book is natural and necessary, a shift that’s good for me, one that protects me,” he says by phone from his home in Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem. “When I write for children, I’m drawn to the child I once was; it’s a place I like to be in, even when it’s difficult and lonely.”

Writing a novel, however, is an all-embracing experience for Grossman, engulfing. “It really demands everything of me, and when I finish, I really feel a need to write something that’s a bit optimistic, something that takes me to a more comfortable place where it’s easier to breathe,” he says. “I think that’s how that rhythm was born, a book for adults followed by one or two for children, allowing me to recover through the latter.”

Storming the world

With the onset of the pandemic and the lockdowns, Grossman adopted an interesting strategy for reading and writing: He would only write for children and only read books that were older than he was.

“The older books were chosen for the soberness and wisdom that they possessed, unlike me,” he says. “Writing for children was meant to connect me to simpler, primal locations. In all the confusion and the sense that the Earth was shaking under our feet, this was a solid, grounded experience.”

He read classic authors like Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and Israel’s Yaakov Shabtai. So it’s not surprising that his new children’s book, "Every Wrinkle Has a Story," written during the first lockdown and with beautiful illustrations by Maya Shleifer, combines experience and wisdom with the joy of discovery in childhood.

A drawing from David Grossman's "Every Wrinkle Has a Story."Credit: Maya Shleifer

This short, minimalist work – available in English as well – is a heart-to-heart talk between a grandfather and grandson. So much is embedded in their conversation. Every Tuesday, Grandad collects Yotam from preschool and they go to Aviva’s café. Granddad drinks black coffee and Yotam grape juice.

On the way to the café, Yotam asks his grandfather what he has on his face. Grandad is a bit bemused before realizing that Yotam is referring to his wrinkles. The inquisitive boy wants to know why wrinkles happen, what it feels like to have them and whether he too will have them one day.

Granddad patiently answers all these questions, alluding to incidents fraught with great sadness, illness and death, as well as events that filled him with joy, such as the birth of Yotam himself, his first grandchild. Each event and its wrinkle.

So why did Grossman write this book, of all topics? “My wrinkles. I’ve reached an age where wrinkles are part of maturing and getting old. I asked myself how my granddaughters see them and what they think about it,” he says.

“They’re at an age where the world is opening up and obtaining meaning; boys and girls are curious, asking questions. They have no limits set by political correctness, they ask simply because something pops up in front of them, and because the world presents them with different faces, new information and new people. Being a child is simply a storming of the world.”

The cover of the Hebrew version of "Every Wrinkle Has a Story."Credit: Maya Shleifer

Of course, it isn’t always so simple. In all the children’s books Grossman has written, childhood is depicted as an experience that encompasses the richness of discovery as well as the sensation of loneliness that comes with discovering the world and oneself.

He recalls “The Hug,” his 2011 work with illustrations by Michal Rovner. “In that story, a mother and child walk through a field. The boy is about 4, and the mother tells him that he’s nice, that there’s nobody like him in the whole world. They walk a bit further and he slows down and asks: Really, there’s nobody like me in the whole world? I don’t want to be the only one like me in the whole world.

“The mother tries to tell him how wonderful it is that he’s special and unique, but slowly, the sadness of being alone, the realization that if you’re special, maybe nobody truly understands you, takes hold of him. That too is part of childhood. It’s like being in a situation where everybody is part of a story you don’t understand, or they tell a joke that you have no clue about. These are the travails and sorrows that come with growing up.”

In the new book, it’s not just the loneliness, the sadness of growing up and the processing of the sad and joyful events that fill the conversations between grandfather and grandson. An artist takes shape in these talks. While they’re speaking, Yotam looks around at other people in the café, noticing who has wrinkles, and their shapes.

Yotam calls out to Aviva, asking her to quickly come over. He whispers in her ear if he can have some crayons.

“That’s the moment a discovery becomes a rich experience,” Grossman says. “The child realizes how wondrous and rich the world is. What he sees is too much to contain, and he gives it expression through his drawing. Maybe it’s the moment he becomes an artist.”

'Suddenly I find myself thinking: Enough already, I’m 68, maybe it’s time I changed careers?' says Grossman.Credit: Emil Salman

In an interview you once said the literature you read, and hopefully sometimes the kind you write, takes place with the inevitability of writing – and with our contact with death. The joy of creation and the proximity of death are very present in the conversation between Yotam and his grandfather.

“Yes. The most significant books in my life took place where you could sense the fullness of life and the absolute emptiness of death at the same time. That’s where the deepest books I’ve read exist.”

Which ones?

“‘Kaytek the Wizard,’ [1933], by Janusz Korczak, for example. When it was translated it was called ‘Yotam the Magician.’ It describes a boy who wants to become a wizard and discovers that he really does have magic powers and the ability to change reality.

“This book describes the power of movement and the ability to take control of the world, along with the fierce loneliness of someone with that power, that gift. Suddenly this power isolates him from everybody else. Suddenly the knowledge that you can do anything you want is frightening – it’s a total and nullifying knowledge.

A drawing from David Grossman's "Every Wrinkle Has a Story."Credit: Maya Shleifer

“Another one was ‘The Flying Classroom,’ [also 1933], by Erich Kästner. I recently looked at it again and read a scene with Uli von Simmern, the shy boy who’s worried that the others think he’s a coward. To prove his courage, he jumps off the roof of a gymnasium holding an umbrella as a parachute. That moment, where a child is willing to do something so suicidal in order to win a place in a group of children, breaks my heart every time I think about it.”

A dimension that others don’t have

Grossman’s readers are aware of children’s central place in all his work, not just the children’s books. “See Under: Love,” “The Zigzag Kid” and “Duel” are some examples. No less interesting is the key role Grossman gives to grandparents, argued a Tel Aviv University literature professor, Yael Darr, in a 2008 article in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition.

In that piece, Darr wrote that in the pre-state Jewish community and in the first two decades of the state, children’s stories often featured no adults at all. This was true for Lea Goldberg’s “Where is Pluto?” (1957) and Yigal Mossinson’s adventure series “Hasamba,” which began in 1949.

“The young, vital and independent child was an emblem of the success of the Zionist enterprise and the young state,” Darr wrote. “Older people, the ones who wrote stories and the older people in these stories deliberately dwarfed themselves.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s the time was ripe to add the parents’ generation to children’s literature; stories of an idyllic childhood in farming communities were replaced by tales of urban families, usually a child, a sibling, a mother and a father. Yehuda Atlas’ "It’s Me" (1977) and Grossman’s series about a boy named Itamar are good examples. The parents played no less a role than Itamar in solving a problem and protecting the child.

Darr described the first decade of the new millennium as a time when the parents, not the children, were at the center of the story. Unlike the confident and protective parents in the Itamar series, Mom and Dad in this decade were “mischievous, lacking authority and sometimes infantile,” such as in Etgar Keret’s “Dad Runs Away with the Circus” (2000). Alongside the lost and confused parents, grandfathers and grandmothers finally make an appearance in children’s books.

“Over 60 years when the locally born children who represented the ideal of a state embarking on its path have themselves become grandparents, it’s probably time for the grandparents’ generation to express itself,” Darr wrote.

A drawing from David Grossman's "Every Wrinkle Has a Story"Credit: Maya Shleifer

Grossman didn’t wait for the new millennium to make grandparents a significant part of his work. His writings are infused with various older people full of character, their youth still a powerful presence. In “Duel” (1982), Grossman’s first book, a 12-year-old boy named David finds himself caught up in a duel between two old men, the pinnacle of their conflict over a woman who died many years before.

“The Zigzag Kid” (1994) describes an unusual week in the life of the 13-year-old son of a policeman. He learns details about two older people – lawbreaking Felix and theater star Lola Ciperola – who turn out to be the parents of his dead mother.

In “See Under: Love” (1986) Momik, an elementary school student, has to take care of Anshel, the brother of his late grandmother and a Holocaust survivor who has been released from a mental institution. These are but a few examples.

“Maybe it’s because I was lucky to have grandparents who lived to an old age, who were very present and active in my life. I even had a great-grandmother I knew well. She lived until I was about 18,” Grossman says.

“When I wrote about a family, it was obvious that they would be part of it. It wasn’t just that they were an important part of my life. I was a very inquisitive child, a child who always asked and interrogated his grandparents about their childhood, about where they were during the war. I had a feeling, I remember, that these people had a dimension other people didn’t have, and that made them interesting to me.”

Understanding your enemy

Curiosity about the older generation remains present in the life of Grossman, who is now a grandfather himself. “My father is 95 now and I’m fascinated by his stories and by the way he remembers everything. It gives me a sense of belonging, but also an understanding of the way stories pass from one generation to another.”

You’re actually part of a chain of storytellers; you tell your grandchildren stories while listening to stories your father tells.

“It still happens in many conversations where I pull it out of him, asking questions, mainly about his childhood. He came here as a refugee, a child, with his widowed mother and his sister. He had to find his place here, in a society of children who were born here, studying at the same school. It was quite a drama.”

Maybe this is why grandparents in Grossman’s stories are so vibrant, diverse and full of contrasts. In that sense, you can’t help but see in them defiance against the image of the old person in Israeli society: a uniform character, marginal if not outright invisible, someone whose time has passed. In Grossman’s case, it seems that all his characters have more of a future even though they're getting older.

Grossman. “When we’re children, there’s a great effort to subjugate consciousness and impulses to societal norms."Credit: Screenshot from the YouTube channel Sifriyat Pajama

“As the characters mature, it becomes more important for them to tell their stories,” Grossman says. “And in telling them, they become more alive. The revival of a story allows them, based on their experience and at their ripe old age, to see the story from a different perspective. For me, storytelling is like a constant massaging of one’s consciousness. You can’t let it freeze; you have to try to approach it from an unexpected angle.”

For example?

“You have to see the perspective of someone you’ve branded an enemy in your story. Maybe you suddenly understand his motives, how hard it is to be him. Many times we’re stuck, facing each other, butting heads without moving an inch forward, because we’re trapped inside our official story.

“You see this with nations and cultures, and with individual people, how they’re trapped in an official story they tell everyone they encounter, and this gradually paralyzes them. They become a victim of this story because they’re trapped inside it without being able to breathe. Because of this, their vitality ebbs away. They only have the rote words they’ve always parroted.”

Grossman’s grandparents not only allow the story they tell to change form, texture and color, they let their grandchildren do so as well. In the new book about the wrinkles, the grandfather creates an environment where Yotam can wonder, imagine and draw.

This is true in his other books such as “Uri’s Special Language” (1989) in which only Yonatan, Uri’s older brother, understands what Uri is saying. Grandfather Itzik doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t judge or criticize Uri. He only laughs to the point of tears, signaling that he’s with Uri the whole way.

“When we’re children, there’s a great effort to subjugate consciousness and impulses to societal norms, to customs and expectations adults have of us. For a child this is a huge effort, having to forgo many things to conform to the demands made of him. Along comes a children’s book that gives him some relief, letting him lean back and meld into a experience that’s less rule-bound, less strict and full of expectation,” Grossman says.

“It’s an interesting experience for the parent reading the story as well, since it allows him or her, as someone laying down the rules, often strictly setting boundaries for the child, to melt into the surrealism, absurdity and madness that can exist in a children’s book.”

You once said that as you approach old age you can immediately identify children who are like you were: more curious, more alive, making all these connections. Is Yotam, the grandson in "Every Wrinkle Has a Story," you?

“I no longer know how much it’s me or if I mix into this character younger aspects of myself. I know I identify with a child asking questions who’s unafraid of questions because he knows that his grandfather’s answers will protect him. You know what, when I think about it now, I’m more the grandfather than the child. Maybe I’ve grown up.”

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