Early one morning, I walked into the school library and Deborah, our librarian, handed me a book. “You will love this one,” she said with certainty. I know that when Deborah tells me that I will love a book, I need to take her seriously. In the nineteen years I’ve known her, she has never steered me wrong. She has a unique gift for being able to match books to readers. Her breadth of knowledge is truly astounding.
I had a bit of time before classes started, so I sat down and began to read The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Khoa Le. The colorful paintings immediately pulled me into this tender story about the relationship between a young girl, Kalia, and her grandmother, who survived the Vietnamese War as a child.
Kalia describes how important her grandmother is to the fabric of their family, how she enriches them with stories, and they care for her as she ages. Kalia and her sisters care for their grandmother by cleaning her clothes, washing her softly wrinkled skin, and clipping her fingernails and toenails. They share food with her, and when treats are desired, Kalia shares ice cubes in a cup and peppermint candies. Grandma’s skin is beautifully brown, worn and wrinkled. Grandma’s one and only tooth stood up straight and proud in her mouth. She was truly beautiful.
A mutual, deep respect grows between granddaughter and grandmother. Though poor and small and female, both prove to be tough, strong, and courageous. As Kalia’s grandmother tells a story about being chased by a tiger when she an orphaned child in the forest of Vietnam, Kalia begins to understand the sacrifices that her grandmother has made in her life.
I squeezed her feet in my arms and pulled them close to my heart,
a hug for the hard road she’s walked to get to me.
And in the end, Kalia realizes that her grandma’s determination, and encouragement has helped her to grow up strong and resolute. To Kalia, her grandma’s smile is the most beautiful thing in the world.
The Most Beautiful Things Grandpa’s hands were hands that worked. As boy he worked on farmstead in Italy, Digging, pulling up roots, planting seeds. As a young man, he worked in coal mines, Cutting, scraping, drilling, and shoveling tons of Bituminous and Anthracite. Coal dust under his fingernails and in his lungs. During World War I, they placed a rifle in his hands, And he fought hard for America. As a father, he worked digging ditches for the WPA - Long hours, hard labor, he kept going, Raising his two sons on his own - In the kitchen, stirring pasta, cutting vegetables, kneading bread dough into long loaves. As a grandpa, his hands held tender care, He’d let us help in his backyard garden, Showing us how to dig in the soft dirt, Pulling up weeds and putting them in a pile, Selecting the ripest plum tomatoes , and the tender squash blossoms, We would sit in his kitchen as he cooked up A garden of delight. My grandfather’s spotted, wrinkled hands, His knobby knuckles, his rough and rugged nails Were the most beautiful things to me, They were a testament to a hard life lived well.