A podcast interview with Molly Idle
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with Caldecott Honoree Molly Idle about her new and poignant picture book Witch Hazel.
Listen to the Interview
Molly Idle is the award-winning creator of many books, including the mermaid tales Pearl and Coral. Molly’s work as an author-illustrator also includes the Tea Rex series and the Caldecott Honor Book Flora and the Flamingo. Molly lives in Arizona with her family and invites you to visit her at idleillustration.com.
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Molly Idle: Bianca, thank you so much for having me today.
Bianca Schulze: Oh my gosh, it’s such a pleasure. You have a bunch of books, more than I can count on the fingers on my hands. So, I would love to talk about all of them, but since you have written so many, I thought we could just start with a general sense of what led you to create books for children.
Molly Idle: Oh, wow. Excellent question. I have always loved making art since I was tiny, and my mom was always so encouraging of that. She is very artistic. She is very involved in the performing arts, theater, and dance, so she was always very supportive of any artistic endeavor I wanted to get into.
So, I drew all through my childhood, but it wasn’t until I was about twelve or thirteen the movie The Little Mermaid came out, and that movie just blew my mind. I thought I want to be able to make art like that, share stories that make me laugh and cry, and that I want to see again and again. And that started my journey to become an animator. And I did. I went through college, earned my BFA in drawing, and then was fortunate enough to get hired as an artist for DreamWorks Feature Animation in the days when things were still hand-drawn. You know.
Bianca Schulze: Amazing.
Molly Idle: It feels like ages ago now—and it actually was—but I had an amazing time working there. And after three films, I think the studio made the transition into computer-generated imagery. And they were very nice and said, if you want to stay on, we’ll be happy to train you in using the computer to make art. And I stayed on for about six months, and I just really, really missed making art with my hands. And I remember being slightly confused because making movies had always been my end goal. And I thought, well, they’re still offering me the chance to make movies. Why aren’t I as passionate about it as I was before?
And so, I sort of turned inward and asked myself, well, what is it about making movies that I loved? And I thought, well, I loved drawing characters and telling their stories, being a part of that, and then sharing those stories with lots of people. And when I asked myself what other art I could make that would allow me to do that, it was so easy. It was, of course, going to be children’s books.
Bianca Schulze: It sounds like just the power of story, in general, moves you, and sharing stories is important to you. If you could articulate, why do you think that, for you particularly, stories feel so powerful?
Molly Idle: They’re just what our entire lives are made of. To me, to share your story is to share your life. To hear somebody else’s story is to have them share theirs with you and become a part of it simultaneously. I think the sharing of stories is integral. I mean to share is to keep part for yourself and to, at the same time, give part away, to let part of it go. And that seems to me to be the best of both worlds. Right.
You know, when you share your story, it’s still yours. Only somebody else knows it. Now maybe they tell it to somebody else. And I’m fascinated by all the different ways we can share our stories. Of course, there’s literature, but, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, the saying goes, I truly believe that we can share our stories through art, dance, or music. There are so many ways to communicate with other people and to share a bit of yourself with them and have them share a bit of themselves with you.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Beautiful. So, on the note of sharing a piece of your own story, we’re going to talk about Witch Hazel today, which is your newest picture book. And it brought tears to my eyes because it tugged on my heartstrings in such a poignant way. Since the characters Hazel and Hilda are based on your grandma and yourself, would you share a little about your bond with your grandma and what led you to create this particular story?
Molly Idle: How long have you got? My grandma—everybody in our family called her Mana, and I gave her that name. As a small child, I was the first granddaughter of her first daughter, so I got an ordinant amount of attention. And my grandmother, who was so sweet and complex and the world’s best baker. If you’re lucky, you have a special relationship with your grandmother. Right. It’s between grandparents and grandchildren. There’s just something magical that happens there.
I remember my mom saying to me once, like, your Mana is not the person that raised me. She said she’s an entirely different person now; she was all rules and everything. And my grandmother said to my mother of me there is no reason to tell her no, which is so not true. Right? I’m sure there were many reasons to tell me no. But in her eyes—
Bianca Schulze: You were perfect!
Molly Idle: And she was perfect to me. And we never got to spend as much time together as I wanted. We lived on opposite ends of the country, so every visit with her was so special to me. And our time was so like we just made the most of every single minute that we had together. And as she got older and her body became more frail, I saw there was just a growing, like a disparate sense between how people perceived her and how she perceived herself. You know, all people who met her in her old age saw was this clever, wizened little 90-year-old woman who was just shy of 5ft tall, as if that was all she ever was and ever had been.
But in her mind, of course, she was still the strong woman she was in her forties, the belle of the ball that she was as a teenager, the little girl who loved to climb trees in the forest that were all around her house growing up, all of that was still a part of her. And I could see all of that because I knew her because she had shared those stories with me. And I wish I could magically make all those memory Manas visible to everyone else so that they could see not just the final chapter in her life but all the parts of her story. And that’s when I started to conjure Witch Hazel.
Bianca Schulze: Do you want to talk us through the story? Just to give readers an idea of what they can expect.
Molly Idle: Much of the story throughout Witch Hazel is told through memories that Hazel conjures from dust with her broom. Throughout each part of the story, which is told in seasons, there is the memory of part of Hazel’s life. The seasons are tied to, like, times in our lives. So, Spring focuses on when Hazel was a young child, and she shares that memory with Hilda.
And then, in Summer, the memory that she shares is of an older version of herself. And in fall, older still. And we go throughout the entire year learning more about Hazel and the Hazels that were and still are inside her. And Hilda, her granddaughter, is learning more and more about Hazel and also about memory and how to conjure that magic of memory herself.
Bianca Schulze: We can totally cut this part out because I’m going to share a spoiler, and if Molly says we don’t have to cut it out, listeners, and you don’t want to spoiler, maybe just skip forward a little bit. But you’re going to want to hear this. I love to sort of put the artwork to the words you just shared about the story that as Hazel shares these stories with Hilda and she sweeps up her stories—her memories—into dust, you see these illustrations throughout. And so, there’s these beautiful—they’re not sparkly in the book, but they feel sparkly—these sparkly dust memories that are just beautiful and float throughout. And you really get to understand who Hazel has been and who she is.
But then, at the end, and here’s the spoiler part is that Hazel becomes the dust and the sparkle and becomes Hilda’s story. And I like, even now, thinking about it, like the goosebumps come, my eyes water. It’s just such a beautiful exploration for me of grief and loss. But you could read this entire story and not feel sad. I think I, as an adult who has experienced loss, that’s why I felt that way about the story. But it was so delicate, beautiful, and sparkly, and I just loved that. So, I’m just curious for you, do you have maybe a page that is the most special to you?
Molly Idle: I think yes. Like you said, not to give too much away, but the piece I put off making for the longest, and in fact, even as I’m saying this to you now, I find myself fidgeting with my hands because talking about it is hard. But that moment where Hazel transitions from being in the present to being a memory was simultaneously very, very hard to make but also incredibly healing and cathartic.
And I think that while I’m having trouble putting it into words, I hope that’s what the picture conveys. I mean, for me, that is where I was with my Mana when she was no longer a part of our present but became a memory. And while those moments can be so incredibly difficult and painful to experience, they can also be unspeakably beautiful. And I cannot imagine not being there with her and being able to hold her hand in mind when that happened. And there are so many people throughout the last few years who haven’t been able to be with the people that they loved when that happened. And I now view it as even more of a privilege than I did when it happened.
Bianca Schulze: Molly, I wish we were in person because that was a very moving, hug-worthy response. And I’m so grateful for you being so open and sharing with us the, I guess, the quintessential meaning of this book for you.
I’m not Jewish, but I think that’s a Jewish saying that I really love that when somebody passes and you say, may her memory be a blessing, and I feel like that I just love that sentiment because that is almost what your book is. Your book is, ultimately, may her memory be a blessing. And it’s a reminder to anybody who picks it up and shares this book, you know, that we will experience loss at some point in our lives, and the memories of the people we lose are a blessing for most of us.
Molly Idle: And if we’re lucky, I mean, it sounds odd to say, but if we’re lucky, that’s what happens to us, right? That we love people so much that it is so hard to let them go. My dad is a mathematician, and I often think of the inverse relations of things or the direct relation of things mathematically. And I think our sense of loss is directly proportional to the love that we had for that person. So, if you’re lucky, you get to grieve for somebody that way, but also, what you’re really grieving is all the things you’ll miss.
And I found that as I worked on this book, the times that I would cry the hardest were happy tears. Like, I was laughing, there’s, like, that bittersweet feeling, things I would think of that we said to each other that were, like, ridiculous and, like, we laughed so hard, we cried, and they wouldn’t be that funny to anybody else. And all these millions of moments that we’re so lucky to have had. And I feel so incredibly fortunate to have a platform to express that in the form of a story and to make this conversation one that is not so scary.
Years ago, I hopped into a cab. I was doing some bookish event, and I hopped into a cab coming into New York City. And, you know, it must be years ago if it was a cab, right? But I hopped in the cab, and after I said where I wanted to go, the driver turned around and said, do you know what the problem with people is? And I said no. But I’m interested to learn. And he said we’re all so afraid of getting older and dying, and we do everything we can to push it away from us, and we should stop doing that. And I thought you’ve got a real point.
And the fact is that these conversations can be seen as uncomfortable, but I don’t feel that they should be. It should be a conversation about sort of the cyclical nature of things. And if we don’t talk about these things, then they become bigger and scarier than we may already feel that they are. And when we talk about them, we make our grief more manageable by sharing it with others, allowing them to comfort us, and allowing if others allow us to comfort them.
It’s like sharing stories. You keep a part of it, and you give a part of it away. And the more that you share and talk through it, you’re really not only sharing your grief, but you’re sharing the love you had for this person. And in that way, you keep them going.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Yes. And that’s exactly what your book— it just shows that so joyfully.
There’s something—this is going to sound really silly, but there’s something that I just love about this book. It’s the color, the palette that you use. And I just want to comment that I find it really on point with everything on Instagram that is all, like, beige right now. Beige and caramel and nudes. And I think Kim Kardashian has even released a Beats Headphone collaboration in all of these nude colors. And so, it’s like your book is so fashionable.
Molly Idle: For once, I’m on point, then. All right.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s talk about the process a little bit. How did you pick this color palette? And did the words come first for this or the art first?
Molly Idle: Actually, what came first was just a drawing that I had done of Hazel of this witch, and I had drawn her with a kitten, and then I had drawn her with this lovely long boa constrictor that she wore, like a feather boa. And I started putting together pieces of a story, stories that she might share. She was remembering, you know, pastimes. And I had shared the idea with my editor, Andrea Spooner, and she said it just needs something—I’m not sure what it needs.
And I worked on the words for quite a while, but it wasn’t until after my mother passed away that I knew how the story would end. And you know what? That’s not true. I think I always knew how the story needed to end, but I couldn’t bear to tell it until her story had ended. I couldn’t really go there. And it was immediately following her passing that I was in her house and helping tidy things up. And tidying has always been such a meditative and calming thing for me, ever since I’ve been a child. Like, if things are out of control, I would go and tidy my room, which is maybe not natural for a small child to go to.
Bianca Schulze: I have one of those in my house. I have a tidier.
Molly Idle: Yes. So, if my surroundings are all right, I have some illusion of control, right? And so, in cleaning her house, I was taking comfort in putting things back the way I knew she would like them. And I realized that that needed to be a part of the story. Witches traditionally have brooms, and you sweep with the broom and clean the dust. And I thought, we will tell the story through the cleaning of her house.
I was thinking of that old Rosemary Clooney standard, this old house, and when she’s not going to need the house any longer. And I thought, oh, we’ll conjure the magic through the dust. That will be how we tell the story. The memories will be conjured through the dust. And I thought, well, dust is predominantly, you know, whiteish twinkly looking. And I thought if I illustrate this book in full color, it will diminish the power of the white space of the dust. So, I immediately thought black and white, but that was a bit too cold. And I managed to find this beautiful paper, which reminded me very much of the color of, like, paper, grocery bags. And that made me feel I could somehow draw on it without it being so precious, you know?
I loved that, and I loved the warmth of it and the white on the rich brown of the paper. That took me back to my childhood. Drawing on grocery bags and things like that with the graphite just felt like home to me. You know, pencil is where I’m the most happy, and limiting the palette made it more powerful.
Bianca Schulze: You have so many fans of your Flora series, and Flora and the Flamingo has been your award-winning book and I just feel like it’s going to feel like home for a lot of your fans too. Because it’s just got that same kind of Flora feeling, but it’s completely different at the same time.
Molly Idle: Thank you. That’s a very nice thing to say.
Bianca Schulze: Well, when a book is completed, published, and sent into the world, as you mentioned before, your story then belongs to the readers too. So, what kind of impact do you imagine Witch Hazel could have on readers?
Molly Idle: Oh, gosh, I imagine that its impact will be different on every single person because every reader brings themselves to the book, which is what is so special. You mentioned earlier, Bianca, it touched you because you had experienced loss. And so, I imagine that others who have experienced loss will feel one way about it.
For people who may have never experienced loss, I would hope that this is a gentle introduction to the conversation and that someday, when they do, it might sort of light up a bit in their memory remembering. Oh, I remember that book and this person who’s been through that.
But I also just hope that they enjoy it because I hope that the stories shared in each subsequent season are not sad. As you said, we can linger on the fact that we all become a memory. But I think it’s also really important to remember to enjoy the times that we’re spending. Ironically, some of my favorite memories are of my grandmother relating memories to me. So, it’s like a memory of her memories.
But also, there are so many other themes in the book that I love equally as much. I love how this story plays with different notions of the passage of time because it takes place over a year. And when you’re a child, a year seems quite long. A whole year, you know, as an adult, a year seems to go by in the blink of an eye. For a kitten, an entire year takes you from being a newborn kitten to a grown-up cat, you know, and of course, for the earth that we’re all on rotate just once, you know, in that year, in the seasons change. And so, I think as much as I’m playing with memory, I’m also playing with time. And there’s so much that can happen in that one year. And if we’re lucky, we get lots of those years.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, I’ve also just had this kind of funny little like, I don’t know, it’s made me giggle thinking of it a couple of times where, you know, a lot of caregivers love to go and get Halloween themed books for their kids. Right. And so, when we think of Halloween, we think of pumpkins, mummies, and, of course, witches. Right. Or, for some people, it’s predominantly just pumpkin spice lattes. But I imagine there will be some people that just literally pick up your book because it’s beautiful, has a witch on it, and suits the current season.
I kind of giggle at how they’re going to pick this up and maybe come to it just thinking that it’s going to be just a fun story. It completely is. And then they’re just going to be totally blown away by how mesmerizing it is. Because I don’t know, I’ve had a very random thought. But I just imagine there will be people that end up with this book purely because it has a witch on it, not even knowing how deep but Joyful and mesmerizing it will be for them.
Molly Idle: Oh gosh, I suppose that could be the case. Where are the bats? Right. As I flip through this book now, there is not a single pumpkin. So, it is bereft of pumpkin. But I also like turning that idea of what is magical on its head because Hazel is a witch.
And I thought I made her Witch Hazel for a number of reasons. One, witch hazel, the plant has healing properties, right? So, there is an element of healing just within her name itself. And, of course, she does magically conjure these memories. But when you think about it, memory and creativity and love, these are all things that are, I mean, if we’re going to call it real, they are really magical. I don’t need a potion or a spell, necessarily. And I love the idea that this is a magic that everybody can replicate, that young readers and old, you know, well, let me tell you about the time, and they are making their own magical memories.
Bianca Schulze: I love that you just shared the idea of witch hazel, the plant, and its healing properties. And I have a little in a previous life, experience working in the skincare industry. And witch hazel is indeed recommended for sensitive skin. And when I think about this Witch Hazel, the book is the perfect opportunity to talk about grief and loss for sensitive children. Like, I genuinely believe that Witch Hazel, your character, and the plant witch hazel are the perfect application for sensitivity.
Molly Idle: Never thought about it. On another botanical note. So, there are these vines in the book, if you’ve got it in front of you, that grow up the front of hazel’s porch. And they are jasmine, which my grandmother had growing on her back porch. And so, I planted them. They’re outside my workshop right now. I have some jasmine plants. And that’s another allusion to time that happens throughout the book is that the plants actually grow and connect, and jasmine symbolizes love. And they just smell amazing, don’t they? And smell is another wonderful way to conjure memory. If you walk in and smell a dish like, oh, my mom used to make that?
Bianca Schulze: Yes.
Molly Idle: It just transports you back instantly.
Bianca Schulze: Well, we’ve talked a lot about memories today, so I would love to ask you, what are some of your memories of becoming a reader yourself? Do you identify with being a reader as a child?
Molly Idle: Very much so. I wanted to be a reader so badly I would pretend to read. One of my earliest memories is of waiting in a doctor’s office with my mom, having a newspaper that I was reading, and having her turn it right side up for me. I couldn’t actually read, I’d pretend to read the newspaper, so I wanted to be a reader from the time I could lay my hands on books. I don’t actually remember my process in learning to read, but I remember my parents reading to me every night, and I remember, like, a reading accomplishment. My mom had read me the book Little Women, I think, when I was five or six.
And I don’t know, spoiler alert for our young readers, I remember her getting to a particular chapter in the book and, like, breaking down, sobbing. And I looked at her like, what is happening? You know, at five or six, I wasn’t quite equipped to take it all in, but I read the book myself, and it was like the first great big book I had read on my own. I think it’s like 400 pages, which just seemed epic to me as an eight-year-old. But I made my way slowly but surely through the book, and when I got to that chapter and found myself crying, I thought, oh, my gosh, I understand more of this book now than I did before. And to be fair, it’s become one of my all-time favorite books.
And at each point in my life, or various points in my life, when I reread it, I connect with different characters, trying to become an author and make books. Suddenly I connected more with Jo in the story. And then, when I had my children, suddenly, I had this whole new respect for Meg and her twins. And now that my children are growing up and I have one who’s going to start college next year, I imagine if I reread it today, I would identify most with Marmie.
And so, I think that’s one of the best things about reading is how books can grow with you and vice versa. But I also think there are so many ways for people to learn to read, not just literature, but to appreciate story in other ways. We all read each other’s body language, and we can all interpret a picture and a dance, and when they make us feel things, we are reading into those arts as well. And so, I greatly appreciate all reading, both literative and non.
Bianca Schulze: I love that. So, do you get time to read many new-release kids’ books? I know many authors and illustrators will sometimes see what else is going on out in the wild. Who’s creating what. And are you somebody who likes to see what else is being published? And if you do, which books are inspiring you right now?
Molly Idle: Oh, I very much like to look out and about, but I do it in spurts. When I’m making a book, I try not to read too many other books because I don’t want to be unduly influenced. Oh, they did that amazingly. Maybe I’ll try that, but in between, when I’m working on projects, and I do, I love to go to the bookstore or the library. Oh, my gosh, there are too many wonderful people to focus on them all. But I will tell you that one of my very favorites is my friend Juana Martinez Neal. I think she can do no wrong. I’m always endlessly fascinated by her process and the work that she makes. And I’m lucky enough that we’re critique partners, so we often share works in progress, or when we’re having difficulty with a piece, we’re there for one another. And so she is one of my very favorites.
Bianca Schulze: Well, she’s one of my favorites, too, and I’m so grateful. She has been on the Growing Readers podcast, so anyone listening should go back and listen. And Luisa LaFleur, one of the Children’s Book Review editors, speaks Spanish. And so she also interviewed Juana in Spanish. So, we have a Spanish edition episode on the podcast, which I was so grateful that Juana did. She double interviewed with us.
Molly Idle: Brilliant. That’s so her.
Bianca Schulze: I loved it. Since we’re talking about Juana, we cannot close out this conversation without discussing a forthcoming book where you’ve partnered with two other fantastic kid-lit creators. And when I learned about this book, it’s pretty likely that I squealed out loud. I’m not sure because there was no one else in the room. I’m like, Did I just scream out loud? But I want you to talk to us about I Don’t Care.
Molly Idle: I know, right? The title alone just grabs you. It’s a brilliant manuscript by Julie Fogleano, whose work I’ve just admired for ages and ages. And it is about two people who are very different, seemingly in the small things but are very much the same in the bigger things, where it really counts. And when I read an early draft of Julie’s manuscript, I was struck by how much it reminded me of my friendship with Juana. And I thought, oh, I could draw this as us, you know? And then I thought, wait a second. Who am I to draw Juana’s perspective of our friendship?
And so, I simultaneously texted, Juana, do you want to make a book together? And sent an email to Julie and Neil Porter, saying, what if Juana co-illustrates this book? I just totally volunteered her; she said yes. And we had no idea how we would go about making the art. But we knew we loved the manuscript and each other and thought we would just figure it out like friends do. We would just make it work. And it was an incredible and rewarding experience to work together. We were both so, you know, jumping in feet first. Just let’s do it. And then, when it came time, we were both dragging our feet.
But it was time to make the art because we suddenly realized we actually have to do this now. And we’d never made art together. It’s one thing to be critique partners, right? To tell somebody, I think that could be stronger, or, that looks amazing, and it’s another to be in making a book together, we were like, this will either make us or break us as friends. Like, we may never speak again, or, you know, this will only make us stronger.
And thankfully, we were just so much in sync. There were endless times when we would come to a point where we needed to make a decision, and apart, we had made the same decision. We’d come together. Oh, well, great, we solved that. Other times, she would suggest something, or I would suggest something, and neither of those ideas seemed very good. But then, together, we’d come up with a third idea. Oh, that’s it. That’s what we should do.
It was such a wonderful, wonderful way to work through the pandemic because we didn’t get to actually see each other at all. But we got to spend so much time together making art together; it was just fantastic.
Bianca Schulze: That’s so incredible. Honestly, I’m so excited to get my hands on a copy of I Don’t Care because there hasn’t been a Molly Idle book that I have not loved. And then, when you combine your work with Julie’s and Juana, it’s going to be outstanding. I know it. So, you don’t know why you know, but you just know. That’s exactly how I feel about I Don’t Care.
Molly Idle: Do you know what? You have just described the entire process of that book. You don’t know. You just know. And that was everybody. We all trusted each other, like, from editor to art director, working with Neil and Julie, it was just amazing.
It’s not that making a book shouldn’t be hard work. You know, sometimes you’re in the middle of a project, and it is hard to make, and you’re pushing, and you’re pushing yourself, and you want to make the best thing possible, and you can feel like the project is fighting you or you’re fighting yourself. And there are other times that a project is hard work, but everything just seems to move. Like, when you push on that thing that seems immovable. Suddenly you can move it. And it was like there was just so much love and support going into this whole process from the outset that it just felt like every time we interacted with anyone on the team, it was just pure joy. And that was such a wonderful experience.
Bianca Schulze: That’s amazing. Well, Molly, before we go, is there anything else you think we need to know about Witch Hazel, or do you feel like we covered everything?
Molly Idle: Gosh, I feel like, I mean, yeah. I don’t know what more we could say. I mean, I’m sure we could talk a lot. I think we focused on all the really the most important bits.
Bianca Schulze: Well, Molly, thank you so much for creating all of your books. Thank you so much for creating Witch Hazel. It’s going to be a really amazing book for so many people. It’s going to touch so many hearts. And a special thank you for coming onto the show today to talk about it and to celebrate stories and intergenerational stories and the power of sharing house stories. This has been really special for me. So just a big, huge thank you.
Molly Idle: Oh, Bianca, thank you. It has been an absolute pleasure, and I can’t thank you enough for having me.
About the Book
Publisher’s Book Summary: Transform dust into magical memories in this moving intergenerational tale that celebrates stories and the time we have together. Something magical happens when Hazel and Hilda are together. As the seasons pass, Hazel’s broom whisks the dust off many years of joyful memories, and young Hilda watches them come to life. But is it magic making memories…or are memories making magic?
This poignant tale and artistic tour de force from Caldecott Honoree Molly Idle gently explores the passage of time and the transcendent power of sharing our stories.
Buy the Book
Molly Idle invites you to visit her at idleillustration.com.
- About Witch Hazel
- Molly Idle’s journey from animator to picture book creator
- How Molly’s relationship with her grandmother led to the creation of Witch Hazel
- The power of sharing stories and intergenerational stories
- The process of creating a picture book
- The celebration of memories while processing grief
- The healing properties and symbols of botanicals
- I Don’t Care by Julie Fogliano, Juana Martinez Neal, and Molly Idle
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Molly Idle Discusses Witch Hazel. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Books about Grief, Books About Witches, Intergenerational Stories, Loss of a Grandparent, and Molly Idle.