From the New York Times Book Review, March 13, 2005
By Beth Gutcheon
Douglas Rees's story ''Grandy Thaxter's Helper'' is easily the most winning book about outsmarting death (or almost anything else) in many a season. From S. D. Schindler's illustrations, which paint an irresistible picture of a bygone rural idyll, we learn that cheerful Grandy raises her own vegetables, chickens, flax, grandchildren and assorted orphans. From the look of the outbuildings she's got a cow and maybe pigs, but Mr. Death doesn't last long enough to find out.
On an afternoon in autumn (the pumpkins are on the ground, the corn dried in its shocks), a deeply creepy Giacometti stick figure in black, with horrible wisps of hair and violet-gray complexion, arrives to announce he's going to carry Grandy off. Grandy says sweetly that she can't go until her work is done, but that if he helps, she can leave sooner.
Poor Mr. Death falls for it.
The first day they sweep the whole house and wash all the windows, and by the time the twilight is purple, he's too tired to carry Grandy anywhere. The second day is wash day -- he has to start by making the soap. (Ashes, straw, grease and water are involved.) Then they haul more water, grind corn, cook mush, haul more water, clean the kettles, haul more water, wash the clothes, feed the children, haul more water and wash the dishes. Before he can carry Grandy off, Mr. Death is asleep in his chair.
The third morning, the children say, it's time to brake and swingle mountains of wet reeds for flax, then hackle and spin and weave linen. Mr. Death's horror is piteous to behold. I was sorry he couldn't stay so we could see the swingling and hackling-- oh, the tools! Oh, the vocabulary! The wit and the guile of Grandy! But perhaps all's well that ends well.
From School Library Journal
Grade 1-3–When Mister Death arrives at Grandy Thaxter's house to carry her away, Grandy asks him to wait until she finishes her work, which of course will go faster if he lends a hand. With great equanimity, she piles so much work on the Grim Reaper that he is too exhausted, blistered, and sore to carry her at the end of each day. What makes this rendition of a classic theme interesting, slyly funny, and informative is its Colonial setting. Laundry includes making soap with ashes, straw, and grease; making mush means grinding the corn from the cob first and then boiling and stirring it endlessly; and making cloth from flax sends even the strong-minded Mister Death running away never to return. Schindler's full-color gouache, watercolor, and ink illustrations are suffused in browns and blues and give a glimpse into the era. His sepulchral Mister Death is properly spindly and pale and ever-more disheveled as day by day the tasks and work continue. This text-heavy tale is a tad long for a storyhour but the subtle message about the importance of staying busy to remain out of trouble may be effective for classroom discussion and will be particularly appreciated by children learning about the period.
From Publisher's Weekly
Rees (Vampire High) recounts this gem of humor noir with nary a false step, and sets the classic folktale of a clever matriarch who outwits Death against a Colonial backdrop. Grandy Thaxter lives happily with her family of grandchildren, Patience, Prudence and Perseverence, plus a band of boys ("who didn't have anyone else to take care of them"), Joel, Joshua, Jacob and Jeroboam. Schindler's (How Santa Got His Job) finely-worked ink drawings of the matron's chicken-yard, pumpkin patch and spare New England home add helpful grounding details. When a cadaverous gent dressed in tails and a top hat makes a visit-"I'm Mister Death. I've come to carry you away with me"-Grandy Thaxter has a ready reply: "I can't go until I finish my work.... If you give me a hand, I can leave sooner." The book follows zaftig Grandy and her skeletal caller through several days of back-breaking chores. Soap-making smells bad, and grinding corn gives Mister Death a blister ("I could pop that with a pin," says Grandy helpfully). After his hard work, his hostess invites him to dinner. But it's only a matter of time before Mister Death admits defeat. "I will come back some time when you are not so busy," he says. Schindler's rendering of Mister Death's mortified expressions as Grandy drafts him into a seemingly endless series of chores will have youngsters in stitches. For pure entertainment value, this book is hard to beat. Ages 5-8.
From Children's Literature
Grandy Thaxter is a very busy woman. In addition to raising her own three granddaughters, Grandy cares for the four boys in town who have no one else to care for them. She also does all the work that comes with managing a farm to sustain eight people, including washing dishes, laundering clothes, preparing meals, cleaning house, making flax—and more. Much, much more! When Mr. Death comes to take Grandy away, she tells him she can't leave until her work is done. The work will get done more quickly, she advises, if he will help. Mr. Death obliges and sets to sweeping floors, cleaning closets, and washing windows. By the end of the day, he is sneezing badly, and he is far too tired to imagine carrying Grandy away. He returns the next day and the next, but always Grandy is just too busy.... S. D. Schindler's Mr. Death is a tall, gaunt gentleman who uses a handkerchief and looks progressively worse as time passes, while Grandy Thaxter is plump, comfortable and always fresh as a daisy. Readers are sure to laugh at the progressively more difficult tasks and misfortunes that face Mr. Death, even as they are cheering for Grandy to outwit him. 2004, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), Ages 5 to 9.
From Kirkus Reviews
In this variation of the folk theme in which mortals cheat death, Grandy Thaxter is a sturdy old New Englander in a solid clapboard house and Mister Death is a tall, lanky old fellow dressed in black tails and top hat. Grandy quickly sets him to work cleaning the house, scrubbing the laundry, spinning flax into linen, and cooking dinner for the many children she minds. With aching muscles and burning blisters, Mister Death is always too tired to carry off the very sturdy Grandy and finally just gives up. The pen-and-ink drawings expressively convey the smug self-assuredness of the old lady and the increasing weariness of Death, but ultimately the conflict is so one-sided as to remove any suspense for the reader. There's humor, for sure, as Grandy carefully spells out every single step required to complete the many household chores correctly. Those wanting a more gentle take on the tale will enjoy the read.
From Horn Book
When Mister Death comes to call, industrious Grandy Thaxter doesn't blink an eye: "'I can't go until I finish my work,' she said. 'If you give me a hand, I can leave sooner.'" Mister Death agrees to help, but Grandy has an endless amount of backbreaking, blister-producing housework, and by the end, exhausted, Mister Death decides to come back some other time. Grandy isn't just buying time for herself; she watches after her grandchildren and "other children in town who didn't have anyone else to take care of them." The finely detailed illustrations reflect and extend the well-told story's humor and olden-days setting and play up characters' physical attributes to good effect. Schindler portrays Mister Death as a tall, pallid, skeletal gentleman dressed in black; ruddy, bonneted Grandy is solid and wide and, as Mister Death learns the hard way, immovable. As Grandy piles on the chores (doing laundry, for instance, begins with making the soap; weaving cloth begins with making the flax), Mister Death starts looking even more like, well, death, while Grandy remains as firmly entrenched in this world as ever. While you wouldn't want Mister Death to come a-knockin' on your door, Grandy Thaxter's Helper will be a welcome story-time visitor.