Grandpa's Great Escape

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Hilarious, poignant tale of boy and grandpa with dementia.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Besides a lot of information about World War II, RAF flying aces, and the planes in their lives, Grandpa's Great Escape is an homage to a raft of POW-escape movies, especially The Great Escape, with many details adopted from those stories.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about love, family, friendship, resourcefulness, determination, supporting each other in difficult times -- especially by entering into the world the loved one now inhabits, "real" or not. Also a love for history and adventure in bygone times.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jack's bond with his demented grandpa is strong, and so is his determination to help the old man escape his prison and get back to the life he loves. In the process, he benefits a good deal from the military stealth skills the old man's taught him -- there's a lot of breaking and entering for a good cause. Grandpa's a bit shaky on what year it is, but this serves him well because when he's imprisoned, he puts to work all his hard-earned skills at breaking out of POW camps. Local newsagent Raj (a recurring character in Walliams books) is on hand, still selling gross food well past its sell-by date but also jumping in to help out when Jack and the "Wing Commander" need it.

Violence

Grandpa is menaced and packed off to a prison-like "home" by thuggish "nurses" (who turn out to be thugs in nurse uniforms). Lots of unlucky old people are imprisoned there. A character in a plane flies away and is presumed dead. Jack is zapped by an electric gate. A building burns to the ground, and it's not clear whether its evil owner has escaped. The matron uses a cattle prod on her victims. A room full of empty coffins figures in the plot.  Several adventures involve dangerous activities, including stealing a plane and leaping about between airborne exhibitions high above the ground.

Sex

An adult character gives another a peck on the cheek. A character saves another with the "kiss of life," and they later fall in love. While making an escape rope out of ladies' underwear, Grandpa replies to uninvited advice with "I know my way around a pair of ladies' knickers, thank you very much, Squadron Leader!" Reminiscing about the old days, he says, "I trained with an excellent pilot named Charles. At the weekends, he would dress up and tell us all to call him Clarissa. Made an extremely pretty woman. Had one or two marriage proposals."

Language

Grandpa, who thinks he's in the RAF in olden times, calls an ethnically Indian character "char wallah," which is what he might call an Indian servant back then. Some bathroom, poop, pee, underwear, and butt humor, including hiding something from the guards "by clenching it between my buttocks. It was the one place they didn't look!" Grandpa sometimes exclaims "most queer!" meaning odd. Occasional "darn," "blast," "old farts."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One of the villains buys a lot of champagne. Another puffs fat cigars. An adult character gets woozy after eating several boxes of liqueur chocolates. At the "home," patients are kept drugged into a stupor.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that, as the title hints, Grandpa's Great Escape is best-selling British author David Walliams' homage not just to the love between a 12-year-old boy and his grandfather, once an RAF flying ace but now suffering from dementia, but to the entire genre of WWII prisoner-of-war sagas, especially The Great Escape. Set in 1983 in an English village, the story finds young Jack having epic adventures with Grandpa -- or rather, Wing Commander -- as the old man relives the past. After one adventure too many attracts the authorities and lands Grandpa in a creepy, prison-like "home," where the patients are drugged into a stupor and the matron steals their money, the stage is set for stealth, heroics, airplane theft, and other outrageous but cheer-worthy moments. As in other Walliams books, expect some bathroom humor, underwear humor, and occasional nudge nudge, wink wink. But also, a lot of loving, heartfelt, affectionate detail about the Battle of Britain, those who fought it, and those who loved their stories.

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What's the story?

Steeped in World War II lore, GRANDPA'S GREAT ESCAPE is the tale of 12-year-old English village boy Jack, whose best and only friend is his beloved grandfather, a heroic World War II flying ace with many thrilling tales. Trouble is, it's 1983, but the old man's mind has been slipping, and now he's living in 1940, all the time. Jack's happy to relive his exploits with him, but he also knows the old man's unpredictable ways and the aftermath of their adventures are going to be trouble. When trouble finally comes and Grandpa is carted off to the horrible Twilight Towers, where the prisoners -- er, patients -- are drugged, robbed, and otherwise ill-treated, all seems lost. But the wily old Wing Commander and the brave young Squadron Leader are anything but defeated.

Is it any good?

David Walliams and Tony Ross return with a harrowing, hysterical, heartfelt tale of a World War II flying ace and his loving grandson as they battle dementia and authority figures. It's an affectionate tribute to a heroic generation and its exploits -- particularly, as it turns out, with regard to escaping from POW camps. There's a lot of historical detail here (including a helpful reference at the end) about World War II and the battles the characters are reliving, the fine points of various airplanes, etc.

While Grandpa's Great Escape delivers plenty of the intrepid derangement readers expect from Walliams, this one feels more tender and personal than some of the others. You might even want a Kleenex now and then.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the war stories in Grandpa's Great Escape. What did you learn about the Battle of Britain and the heroic young pilots who took part? Do you know anyone who flies planes in the military today?

  • Do you think you'd like to learn to fly an airplane? Where do you think you might go to learn?

  • Why do you think escape-from-POW-camp movies remain so popular?

Book details

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For kids who love history and World War II stories

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