Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, translated by Julia Marshall and illustrated by Anna Hoglund was not what I expected of this English translation of a Swedish story.
I thought at first it was going to be a book about a friend teaching another to friend (a female) to whistle. Or maybe a younger sibling some whistling techniques. Perhaps even, it was going to be some way to show that boys and girls are equal (everyone can whistle). Instead, it is about a young boy who decides to get himself a grandfather.
Yup. Just goes to the senior home, picks one out, gives him a flower and says, “You’re my grandfather. I’m your grandson.” And the man says, “Okay. Hi.”
Now, we the reader knows this is not a biological case of grandparent and child, but of a boy who wonders why he does not have a grandfather like his friend Ulf. Ulf’s grandfather gives him money when he leaves after a day of eating cake, fishing, smoking a cigar (grandfather, not Ulf) and other grandfatherly duties. Together, Ulf and Berra take their newfound grandfather and do things with him: have tea, talk, ask questions, think, take a walk, smoke a cigar, and do not go fishing as the grandfather does not like to. And Berra tries to learn how to whistle the song, “Can You Whistle, Johanna?” (Johanna, Grandfathers late wife, name).
The ending is bittersweet. The sensitive child might not see it coming, but the adult understands that grandfathers are old, even if they climb trees to steal cherries with grandsons. And they understand that grandfathers have bad hearts that eventually must stop.
The book has a classical feeling with modern sentiments. They combine to create a heartfelt story. The illustrations continue that old-school feeling with the muted colors, but not faded and the more simplistic (not negatively) illustrations.