How could I resist a picture book titled Grandmas are Greater than Great? I was captivated by Kaitlyn Sanchez’s interview with author James Solheim on her blog Math is Everywhere and knew immediately that I would have to buy this book for my granddaughter’s tenth birthday later in the year.
When I was turning ten, my grandfather impressed on me how grown up I was becoming now that I had reached double figures. I’d never forgotten how important it had made me feel. When my grandson turned ten, I wrote him a letter telling him about the significant milestone and what my grandfather said to me. With his little sister’s tenth birthday fast approaching, I knew I had to do something similar for her, but not the same. Solheim’s book seemed just the thing, so I ordered it immediately. I wasn’t disappointed. (I wasn’t disappointed either when I received a free copy from the author, simply because I’d commented on Kaitlyn’s blog. How awesome is that!)
About James Solheim
James Solheim’s books circle the globe and travel through centuries. They explore the wackiest foods on earth and tell the stories of history through our grandmas.
Born in rural North Dakota in the U.S., he grew up mostly in Missouri. As a child he wrote and illustrated his own books and looked for lost civilizations and dinosaur bones in his backyard.
He met his eventual wife when he was assigned to sit by her at a spelling bee in eighth grade, with the result that he misspelled “paisley.” She is now a scientist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Their two children are imaginative, talented grownups—grown up compared to their dad, that is.
Invite James to your school or organization to give one of his “Think Big!” presentations. These programs help kids set big goals and see the importance of books in reaching them.
He’ll even do an online visit with your school or book group!
About Grandmas are Greater than Great
Grandmas Are Greater Than Great is a humorous, animated, and informative look at the lasting power of ancestors. Explore families, generations, and kid power in this heartfelt collaboration between James Solheim and bestselling illustrator Derek Desierto.
Everyone has two grandmas, and every grandma has her own two grandmas. This cycle continues back through time and history.
Traveling from generation to generation, this dynamic picture book offers young readers a bird’s-eye view of how daily life has changed over time. But despite all the differences, one thing has remained the same: a grandma’s love.
James Solheim’s lively text and Derek Desierto’s exuberant illustrations capture the delights and challenges each daughter, mother, and grandma encountered through the centuries. This rich multigenerational story explores the idea that we are all the product of those who came before us, and it will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Grandmas Are Greater Than Great includes basic information on exponential growth and a family tree. It’s a gift of a book for all ages to read with their families, friends, or on their own.
Grandmas are Greater than Great tells the child reader that they are unique, that it took ‘grandmas of grandmas of grandmas of grandmas, going back thousands of years’ to make them just who they are. It is an amazing concept. Many children are fortunate if they know their grandparents; even fewer if they know a great grandparent. Thinking beyond those generations to those who came before is not something many of us do. But this book takes us on a journey back through time, through all those ‘great great great great … grandmas’ who helped to make us who we are.
Down through twelve generations and 200 years, Solheim introduces us to the grandmas and how they lived, what they dreamed and even how they behaved as children. Grandmas are not just those old women in black and white photos. They were once babies and children with hopes and dreams, just like us.
Accompanied by Derek Desierto’s beautiful illustrations, Solheim’s book is a history lesson for every child, in a book about ‘me’. While the stories may not exactly match those of the child’s own grandmothers, they encourage the child to wonder about those who came before and what their lives may have been. But I think what it does, even more than that, is it places the child in a family that stretches far into the past, and wide across the world, that creates a sense of belonging, a feeling that their being is not random, that it took all of these people, and more, for them to be who they are, right now, in this moment in time. How reaffirming is that?
A beautiful book to treasure — for all generations.
Note: This book is also great to read in school when children are learning about the history of their families.
What gave you the idea for writing Grandmas are Greater than Great?
I’ve gathered my own family’s stories for a long time. My mother attended a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of the U.S. and didn’t have electric lighting until she was almost a teenager. She is now the retired treasurer of a university and has technology ranging from the latest computers to a smart thermostat.
Grandmas Are Greater Than Great is all fiction—none of it actually happened—but it comes from the stories about my own family making its way in the U.S. prairies after arriving from Norway.
As I wrote, I got to thinking about how tiny events led to big developments centuries later. And I was interested in math—how one grandma could be the origin of hundreds and then thousands and then millions in a fairly short time. I measured time in grandmas, and presented history as exponential.
“I measured time in grandmas, and presented history as exponential.”
What do you like best about Grandmas are Greater than Great?
I like how the events circle back to speak silently of things the characters didn’t know about—like how telephones are a part of the family story even though they are so different over the centuries. And how the family goes from not believing in electricity to cell phone waves carrying pictures to phones around the world.
Do you like the way Derek Desierto has illustrated your story?
He added a bright friendliness that is just right for the book. It’s great if the art adds a dimension of the book that I didn’t think of myself! An illustrator can make a book richer by not just repeating what’s already there.
I had envisioned complicated art with quilt-like realistic images, but a book’s editor often gets the right artist to give the book an even higher level of life. By giving a history-rooted story a contemporary look, we got a book like no other grandma book on earth.
How did you feel when you wrote Grandmas are Greater than Great?
I thought happy thoughts of moments from my family’s history going back 200 years, even though the book doesn’t depict actual things that happened. When I write, I put myself into the story, and since this was a happy story, I felt the joy and togetherness of the characters as the events happened.
How do you hope readers will feel?
I hope they will feel the grandeur of the centuries and how the whole book happens because a grandma at the very beginning held her baby and protected her as she came back from illness.
How would you like teachers to present Grandmas are Greater than Great to children?
A book is as fun as a movie or sporting event. We cheer for the heroes, and at read-aloud story times we experience books with groups that cheer with us. So, teachers should make sure that there are always book times in the day where books are presented as exciting events—as anticipated as recess.
Activities associated with the book should be designed to make the students recognize that they are good at things. Children need to feel that they are good at appreciating books so they will want to dive into more books.
My stepmother was a lifelong teacher, principal, and professor in the teacher’s program at Northwest Missouri State University. She specialized in developing kids’ enthusiasm for books, which is the key to their future education because that creates enthusiasm for future learning.
At jamessolheim.com/fun-activities, you can find my stepmother’s Book of the Day idea that turned books into celebrations at her schools—twice-yearly festivals, each focused on a single book. In that page of my website, click on “A School Day of Fun.”
“A book is as fun as a movie or sporting event. We cheer for the heroes, and at read-aloud story times we experience books with groups that cheer with us. So, teachers should make sure that there are always book times in the day where books are presented as exciting events—as anticipated as recess.”
What messages do you consider most important for them to discuss?
My books weave things together in ways that different people will see differently. One person might respond most strongly to the family’s togetherness or to how math develops the human race worldwide. Another might respond to the stories’ drama or the humorous moments. Many children might just think about love of grandmas.
Instead of consciously working on learning all day, kids also need to talk about what they simply enjoy, and books’ themes will grow within them as they ponder.
Do you have any advice for teachers in their role as writing guides?
My most effective teachers as a child are influential in my writing career—my second-grade teacher Ruth Larmer-Savage and my fifth-grade teacher Tom Buttery. Dr. Buttery did something very simple that helped me develop as a young writer. Every child got a spiral notebook, and he just said to write whatever we wanted in it.
He knew how to teach. He wrote the book on teaching reading—literally: the Handbook of Research on Teacher Education. He went on to be an education professor (website https://www.apsu.edu/directory/faculty/butteryt.php) and wrote articles like
“Be a top ten principal: Read to your students” (in Reading Improvement, 22(1), 34-36),
“Planning reading instruction for the exceptional child,” (also in Reading Improvement, 22(3), 206-212.)
The emphasis in our spiral fifth-grade notebooks was that we were writing for fun. Nothing in the book would be graded or critiqued. It was just for fun!
Of course, some students will find this idea intimidating, and will need to be prompted. They will need time to write in class because they won’t just start writing on their own the way I did. They will benefit from one-on-one help.
But the key is that they need to be praised, in circumstances where they write what they want. Their talents need to be recognized.
I was born in a town of under 100 people in remote North Dakota, and ended up with two of the best reading teachers in the nation. And then I got a wife and stepmother who are also at the very top of the teaching community. You can see my wife at https://www.unmc.edu/news.cfm?match=18458.
These teachers accomplish their goals through enthusiastic support and kindness.
Remember to try RoAnne’s Book of the Day festival in your teaching!
“These teachers accomplish their goals through enthusiastic support and kindness.”
Do you have any advice for children as writers?
Have fun! Everybody is creative!
What is your favourite picture book?
I constantly see books that I’ve never experienced before, and think “Wow, that’s got to be the best ever.” And then I see another book that seems to be the best in its own way. So, I can’t really say one book is best. They all have their own separate ways of being great!
Readers today are lucky because this is a golden age of picture books. When I was a kid, the printing process wasn’t developed enough to have the palette of today’s books. Most books then had just a few flat colors. Now we can work with subtle ranges of colors and a precise level of detail, and authors can write about life from more real perspectives and not just with simple language and concepts.
(I’m not saying that the old books weren’t good. For example, Ferdinand is a fantastic book—subtle, expressive, creative—and it’s all black and white! The author figured out how to make a pure and expressive artwork out of the materials he had—simple black and white lines.)
Who is your favourite author? What do you like about his or her work?
So many authors write great books that I can’t choose!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When a friend invited me to the public library in first grade, I knew I loved books. Within a couple years I decided to be a writer—and an archaeologist and a paleontologist and a cave explorer and a biologist and an artist and a musician.
You don’t have to settle for one interest when you’re a kid, and even when you’re grown up you should keep exploring ideas and contributing to the world in more than one way. Today I actually am writing about caves and woolly mammoths and all the things I explored as a child, and I’m drawing and making music—so this approach worked!
My publisher (HarperCollins) is in the finishing stages of publishing my next book, one that I illustrated myself—EAT YOUR WOOLLY MAMMOTHS—and you can pre-order it now at Book Depository.
“You don’t have to settle for one interest when you’re a kid, and even when you’re grown up you should keep exploring ideas and contributing to the world in more than one way. “
Where do you write? Do you like to be by yourself in the quiet, or do you like to write in a noisy space?
I write wherever I am, but I usually write at my computer with sunshine or moonlight coming in through the window.
I have written while riding on airplanes, while sitting in hotel rooms, and many other places where I happened to be. I’ve even made up the starts of ideas in my dreams.
Do you think of the story in your head before you write it?
I never know the whole story when I start. Most of it comes from exploring the idea to see what potential it has.
What do you use to write – pencil and paper or computer?
I almost always write on computers. That’s not because I don’t like writing on paper. I love it! But eventually I have to send a book to my editor on a computer, so I need to spend as little time as possible transferring things before writing my next book. I have to write on computers to speed things up, to cut out steps.
What is your favourite time to write?
I write whenever I can. I don’t prefer one time over another.
When or where do you get your ideas for writing?
I’m constantly trying to put my ideas into books. The book I’ve come up with most recently was an idea that came to me as I pulled into a parking lot to go swimming. Instead of swimming right away, I got out a piece of paper and started writing notes for the book.
Thank you, James, for stopping by to share with us your thoughts on the writing process and about what prompted you to write this wonderful book ‘Grandmas are Greater than Great’. I can’t wait to give it to my granddaughter.
Other Books by James Solheim
First published by Simon & Schuster, It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It has been a hit for Scholastic Book Clubs, Scholastic Book Fairs, Junior Library Guild, and beyond—right up to the current Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Reading Program used in schools to inspire love of learning.
The Wall Street Journal and PBS included It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It in their lists of best books for getting boys to read. The Washington Post included it on its list of best books for summer reading. It was an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists and a Blue Ribbon Book of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
James is currently illustrating two of his own books for HarperCollins with the same approach and appeal as It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It!
Purchase your own copy of James Solheim’s books
International buyers can purchase Grandmas or It’s Disgusting at bookdepository.com with free shipping almost anywhere in the world. U.S. buyers can get Grandmas Are Greater Than Great autographed by author AND illustrator at booksofwonder.com.
Watch for Eat Your Woolly Mammoths!—to be published in April of 2022!
Find teaching ideas and other fun at jamessolheim.com
Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or connect with him on
Facebook at facebook.com/james.solheim
(include a message with your friend request to show that the request is real)
If you can get my books from a local bookstore, that’s great. But if they aren’t available there, https://www.bookdepository.com/ sells my books internationally with no shipping fee.
Links to Some of James’s Books on bookdepository.com:
Pre-Order Eat Your Woolly Mammoths!
This interview is now available free, in a ready-to-print format, in Literacy Resources Author Spotlight Author Spotlight – James Solheim. The information may be displayed in your classroom or included in a class book about authors and illustrators.
Remember to check out the complete readilearn collection of
over 480 teaching resources for the first three years of school
Resources beyond worksheets – lessons for teachers made by teachers.
Let readilearn lighten your workload.
I appreciate your feedback and comments. Please share your thoughts below.
Follow Blog By Email