The Children’s Book Review Interview in partnership with Laura Smetana, author of Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids about Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Laura Smetana has fond memories of enjoying ice cream with her son and his grandpa, Laura’s dad. Her latest book, Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids About Alzheimer’s & Dementia, was inspired by their relationship, before and after her dad developed Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Laura has three generations of ice cream scoopers in her home—one from her grandpa, one from her dad, and the one she got with her family in France. Each one brings back sweet memories of loved ones.
Laura co-authored her debut children’s book, Little Squiggle’s Lake Adventure, with her son, Stirling Hebda. She lives with her family in the Chicago suburbs, where she is happily at work on several new books for kids.
In this interview, we talk about her picture book, Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids about Alzheimer’s and Dementia, a comforting and supportive text, ideal for helping young readers understand and process health-related changes in the family.
Dr. Jen Harrison: From your article for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter, we know this story is grounded in personal experience. Did writing the book help you manage some of your feelings of loss and grief?
Laura Smetana: The story is close to my heart as it was inspired by the relationship between my son and my dad, before and after he developed Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. My dad died just a few weeks before the pandemic began, and I remember sitting on the kitchen floor with my son to let him know. We were sharing memories and reminiscing about how much fun we had when we visited Grandpa a few days prior—we played games, had dinner together, and finished the evening with ice cream.
I said, “You know, Grandpa gave you your first taste of ice cream when you were a baby, and you gave him his last ice cream. That’s so special.” It was a full-circle realization that planted the first seeds for this book.
At the time we didn’t know the world was about to shut down. The memorial service was scheduled for the week after Covid lockdowns began and ended up being postponed for 18 months. During that time of uncertainty, I had a lot of time to reflect and reminisce. I realized that despite the changes in my dad’s health, they were able to maintain a special bond over ice cream.
Writing Ice Cream with Grandpa helped me continue to move forward and process my feelings of grief and loss at a time when the world was at a standstill. I wished there was a book like this that I could have read to my son at the time—one that addressed not only dementia but also talked about grief and loss. The writing was a way for me to channel my feelings into something positive, and I hope the book helps other families and children.
The little boy’s parents don’t seem to feature very heavily in the story, although his mom appears with words of comfort from time to time. Can you tell us a little bit about that decision?
In the early drafts of the manuscript, I experimented with the parents playing a more prominent role, but it distracted from the heart of the story, which is the enduring relationship between the grandpa and grandson. While the mom doesn’t appear on every page, I was very intentional about having the mom appear throughout the story at key moments to offer support and encouragement, explain the changes in the grandpa’s health and living situations, and validate and talk through the little boy’s emotions of frustration and sadness. It was important for me to have an adult the boy could turn to for guidance and support.
Why do you think ice cream makes such a good foundation for shared memories?
Ice cream is often enjoyed with loved ones during joyful times of gathering. It’s also delicious and fun to eat! Combine those two things and it’s a great foundation for shared memories. Just like my son, I also have fond memories of eating ice cream when I visited my grandparent’s house growing up. I loved setting out the ice cream bowls and cones, and seeing what flavors were in the freezer.
My grandpa, just like my dad, loved ice cream and I treasure the three generations of ice cream scoopers that were passed down to me. One is from my grandpa, one is from my dad, and the third is one my family got on vacation. Each one brings back sweet memories, and I love sharing those memories with my son as I scoop him ice cream.
For young readers who may be struggling to process feelings of grief and loss, do you have any tips for parents or caregivers who are reading this story aloud that might help?
Books are a great way to start conversations with children. They can help us process our feelings and help us feel less alone in our experiences. I encourage parents to use the story as a tool for discussion, pausing to ask questions and answer questions their child may have, and taking time to reflect on the similarities and differences to their own experiences.
The book also includes a guide with tips for talking to kids about dementia, hospice, death, and grief by Diane Snyder Cowan, MA, MT-BC, CHPCA, an expert on grief and loss. The guide is a great resource to help parents and caregivers support their children through grief and loss, both leading up to and after the death of a loved one. Having these conversations with kids can be challenging, but the story and the guide can help parents and caregivers get started.
What advice would you offer to parents anxious about sharing their own feelings of grief and loss with their children?
Talking about our own feelings with our children can be difficult, but it is so important and books like Ice Cream with Grandpa can help. With long-term illnesses like dementia, feelings of grief and loss are felt over time, not just after death.
With my dad, the changes were gradual and included loss of daily living skills, memory, and mobility. Watching a parent or grandparent’s health decline is hard as an adult, but it can be especially challenging for children. They may not fully understand why the changes are happening, but they feel grief and loss associated with these changes too. It was important for my husband and me to have ongoing discussions about the changes we were seeing, to validate our son’s feelings, and acknowledge that we felt sad about it too.
Although my dad wasn’t able to do many of the activities he once loved with my son, like gardening or playing at the park, it was important for my son to maintain a relationship with him and to feel like he was doing his part to help. So, he helped with Grandpa’s grocery shopping, got the ice cream when we visited him in assisted living, and drew pictures to decorate Grandpa’s wall–a few of which served as inspiration for the drawings on the grandpa’s wall in the book!
After my dad died, we reminisced about Grandpa together and involved my son in remembrance activities like choosing the spot to plant the memorial tree and picking out the flavors of ice cream to eat by the tree on Grandpa’s birthday. Those are some of the things we did as a family, but I recommend parents check out the guide by Diane Snyder Cowan, MA, MT-BC, CHPCA for more tips and suggestions on helping children navigate grief, loss, and remembering loved ones.
Do you feel this book applies even to children and families who are not coping with dementia or grief?
Absolutely! While the book focuses on dementia and loss, at the heart it is a story about the loving relationship between a grandparent and grandchild that will touch anyone’s heart, even if they aren’t personally coping with dementia or grief at the moment. The beautiful illustrations by Elisabete B. P. de Moraes capture the love and enduring bond between the two. The book can also help kids understand other health-related changes and illnesses in older relatives and loved ones, along with the many emotions that come with seeing a loved one’s health decline.
For some, the story will serve as a mirror, and for others, it will be a window. But no matter what your personal situation is, Ice Cream with Grandpa can help open the door to honest discussions on the difficult, yet universal topics of aging, illness, and death, in a way that fosters empathy and compassion. My hope is that readers also leave with a sense of hope—that despite the losses that occur over time, love will always endure, and even after our loved ones are no longer here, we can continue to cherish the memories we shared.
You have several professional degrees as well as being a writer; can you tell us how your professional expertise has helped shape the book?
I’ve always been curious about the world around me and loved writing ever since I was a child. In college, I initially wanted to become a journalist, so I double majored in Political Science and International Affairs. After graduation, my goals shifted and I worked for nearly 10 years at various nonprofits in communications and fundraising roles—all of which involved writing and telling the story of the nonprofit and the individuals we served.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on many creative projects. One of my favorites was writing and editing our annual magazine, which just like a picture book, includes a team of people who work behind the scenes to create the final product.
When my son started preschool, I got interested in early childhood education and left the nonprofit world to enroll in a teacher training program. I loved being in the classroom and learning about early childhood development. Then the pandemic upended everything, and I discovered my love of picture books which allowed me to draw upon my past professional experiences and connect my love of writing with my passion for kids. While I don’t think it shaped the book, it helped me understand the bookmaking process a bit easier!
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Finding the time to work on the book was the most challenging part. I wrote the first draft in early 2021. We were nearly a year into the pandemic and my son’s school was fully remote due to Covid-19. He was in second grade at the time, so my days were spent helping him log on to live lessons, complete his assignments, and reminding him to turn on his camera. Every 25 minutes there was a new subject to join or assignment to complete, and the schedule was different depending on the day. Those rare moments of quiet work were quickly interrupted by, “Mom! Can you help me with….?”
After spring break, and over a full year of remote schooling, his school opened back up for in-person instruction and I took full advantage of those 7 or 8 weeks to work on the book nonstop before the summer break.
Do you have more books in the works, and will they explore similar themes?
I do have a few more books in the works! One that I’m really excited about is called My Love for You Is Like a Garden. It will be coming out in early 2023. This book celebrates the unconditional love between parent and child through bright, bold, watercolor cut-paper collages of garden scenes. This will be a great book to share with a child, new parents, or anyone who means the world to you. I love gardening and watercolor painting, and this book was such a joy to illustrate.
My son and I are also working on the second book in our Little Squiggle series. In 2021, we co-authored our first picture book Little Squiggle’s Lake Adventure after finding inspiration in our own lake adventure. I originally created the character Little Squiggle, who is a giraffe, for a book project in fifth grade. After reading that original book to my son for a bedtime story one night, he suggested we bring Little Squiggle back in a new book. And I’m so happy he did because I’ve discovered how much I love creating picture books!
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream, and why?
That’s such a hard question to answer! One of the wonderful things about ice cream is that there are so many flavors to choose from so I have a really hard time just picking one favorite. I love trying new flavors that may surprise me, but I’ll always come back to dark chocolate peanut butter, rocky road, and moose tracks. I don’t think you can go wrong with anything with chocolate in it!
For more information, visit https://www.laurasmetana.com/.
Written by Laura Smetana
Illustrated by Elisabete B. P. De Moraes
Ages 5+ | 44 Pages
Publisher: Flying Cardinal Press | ISBN-13: 9781737140924
Publisher’s Synopsis: After his beloved grandpa’s health declines and he receives a diagnosis of dementia, a grandson must navigate the changes in their relationship. Through it all, he learns that Grandpa is still Grandpa, and their bond deepens and sweetens through a shared love of ice cream.
Ice Cream with Grandpa is a loving, tender picture book that gently explores the topics of dementia, aging, and loss. Written from a child’s point of view, it chronicles the changes in their relationship as his grandpa moves to assisted living, then memory care, and eventually hospice.
Based on the author’s own experience with her father and son, the touching story and beautiful illustrations by Elisabete B. P. de Moraes addresses these challenging topics with a kind, age-appropriate approach that will resonate with young readers-while providing tools to help children maintain meaningful relationships with loved ones with the disease.
Includes a guide for parents on talking to kids about dementia, hospice, death, and grief by expert on grief and loss, Diane Snyder Cowan, MA, MT-BC, CHPCA.
While the book specifically deals with Alzheimer’s and dementia, its themes are universally applicable to helping children understand the changes in and loss of older relatives and loved ones.
Buy the Book
This interview—Laura Smetana Discusses Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids about Alzheimer’s and Dementia—was conducted between Crystal Mason and Dr. Jen Harrison. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Alzheimer’s Disease, Books About Change, Books About Grandfathers, Grief, and Picture Book.