Behind Grandma’s House

Gary Soto

‘Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto is a short humorous poem about a problematic child who craves attention and their grandma who gives them this attention in the most unexpected way.

Gary Soto

Nationality: American

Gary Soto is an American poet with 30+ poetry collections.

His most famous poem is Oranges.' 

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: Rebellion is not the best way to get attention

Speaker: Likely Soto himself

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Frustration, Laughter

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Behind Grandma's House' by Gary Soto is a humorous poem about childhood and family dynamics. The poem features a speaker who thinks back to their childhood days as a menace and their grandma who disciplined them.

Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto is a short poem about a speaker who was once an attention-seeker. In the poem, the speaker tells of the actions they took as a child so they could be noticed. They also tell of their grandma who disciplined them for these actions. Though Soto gives no indication that he is the speaker, his experience growing up in a tough environment clearly inspired this poem.


‘Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto is a poem about a speaker who reminisces their childhood days as a problematic attention-seeker.

‘Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto begins with the speaker revealing the age at which they were a menace. They share the things they did (like having a comb, using hair products, and having a dog “with mismatched eyes”) to be famous in their neighborhood. Though as a child, the speaker clearly thought these first set of actions were “cool,” as an adult, they can see how childish they were. Nonetheless, these actions were harmless. As the poem progresses, however, the speaker details more severe actions they took (like throwing light bulbs at people while bleeding and scaring animals) to garner attention. At this point, it becomes clear how problematic the persona is.

By the end of the poem, the speaker gives readers a humorous twist. They tell of their grandma coming to them, seemingly to “help” them. Only she ends up punching the speaker in the face.


Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto is written in free verse, meaning there is no determined rhythm, meter, or rhyme scheme. The poem is a single stanza comprising twenty one lines. Soto employs enjambment but also notes when thought ends using the appropriate punctuation. The manner, however, in which one thought runs into another or changes without any warning in indicative of the speaker’s thought process.

Literary Devices

  • Personification: Personification is present in lines 4 and 12. The expressions “happy tongue” and “goofy faces” ascribe human qualities, specifically emotional states to body parts.
  • Caesura: Caesura is a pause in the middle of a line of poetry. This could either be due to a pause or an end in thought. Caesura appears throughout the poem because of the presence of periods and commas within lines.
  • Irony: Situational irony appears in the last lines of the poem, starting from the appearance of the speaker’s grandma. One would expect the grandma to give the persona the loving attention they craved; she did not.
  • Metaphor: This literary device is present in lines 10 and 15. There is an implicit comparison between the length of one’s fingers and the manner in which blood dripped in the expression “fingers of blood.” There is also a comparison between spit and the movement of a stream in the expression “stream of spit.”
  • Simile: An example of a simile appears on line 8, featuring the expression “hurled light bulbs like grenades.”

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

At ten I wanted fame. I had a comb
And two coke bottles, a tube of Bryl-creem.
I borrowed a dog, one with
Mismatched eyes and a happy tongue,

The opening lines of ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ feature the beginning of the speaker’s reminiscing. They make it clear from the onset that at ten, they wanted attention. These lines reveal the harmless things the speaker did to get this attention. “Bryl-creem” is a hair-styling cream for men.

The speaker then must have thought these actions would make them stand out and look “cool” to others. They probably did, though the speaker does not say so. In fact, the neutral tone in which the persona relates this narrative shows they no longer feel their actions was supposed to be a “cool” thing.

Lines 5-10

And wanted to prove I was tough
In the alley kicking over trash cans,
And men teachers held their heads,
Fingers of blood lengthening,

These lines lead one to believe that the harmless actions from previous lines were not that successful in garnering attention. Here, the speaker relates how much further they went to draw people’s attention. In previous lines, the speaker does not actively engage people. In these lines, however, they do, and in the most unkind ways. The speaker reveals how they attacked people, harming themselves in the process without caring. This persona also begins to make noises, “kicking over trash cans,” to draw a crowd. This narrative is not far-fetched from reality, considering many in their younger years did the same thing as the speaker.

These lines are rich in both visual and sound imagery. It is also indicative of the progression of the poem. One can envision the narrative reaching a climax; this sparks enough curiosity in readers to keep them engaged.

Lines 11-17

On the ground. I flicked rocks at cats,
Their goofy faces spurred with foxtails,
I said “Chale,” “In your face,” and “No way
Daddy-O” to an imaginary priest

These lines highlight animal cruelty. The speaker turned to harming animals, plants, and even people who were not present. These lines, more than any, indicate the speaker may have had some underlying psychological issues. They clearly show how much of a menace he was, damaging property. Again, the speaker probably resorted to this because their previous actions only ended up scaring people away from them, not giving them the kind of attention they craved.

“Chale” is a Mexican slang used when one is angry or annoyed. This speaks true to Soto’s heritage as a Mexican American. It also hints at the possibility that Soto is the speaker, although he never admitted such.

Lines 18-21

Until grandma came into the alley
And punched me between the eyes.

The ending lines of ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ comprise both climax and resolution. The climax is the appearance of the persona’s grandma. This climax introduces a situational irony given the description and later action of the speaker’s grandma. Her mussed hair, apron, and even kind words give the appearance of a gentle woman. However, the unexpected twist comes in the resolution when this woman punches our speaker.

The abrupt ending aims to leave readers baffled and even humored by the way the speaker receives the attention they crave. It is hard to feel sorry for the speaker given how problematic they were. However, it is also sensible to insinuate that their grandma’s heavy-handedness (in every sense of the word) may have also contributed to the speaker’s issues. Regardless, ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ is one of those poems that does not take itself too seriously. In a 1999 reading, the audience burst into laughter at these final lines.


When and where was ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ published?

Behind Grandma’s House’ was first published in the poetry collection Black Hair in 1985. Ten years later, on March 1, 1995, it was reprinted in the poetry collection New and Selected Poems by Gary Soto.

What is the tone and mood of the poem?

The tone overall is neutral. The speaker is neither eager nor reluctant to share personal details of their childhood. Readers, on the other hand, are humored by the speaker’s narrative. As evidenced by Gary Soto’s poetry reading in 1999, the poem induced a rather light-hearted mood.

What are the themes of the poem?

The major theme of ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ is childhood. The speaker’s experience as a child forms the entire poem. There are also themes like family dynamics, given the nature of the interaction between the child and their grandma, and community, considering the speaker’s interaction with their community. The speaker’s need for attention is another topic highlighted, although it provides humor at the end of the poem.

Would one consider ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ a bildungsroman?

No, ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ is not a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman traces the persona’s growth from an often problematic childhood to their life as a mature adult. This poem lacks that detailed trace and only shows the speaker reminiscing about their problematic childhood.

Similar Poetry

If you enjoyed reading ‘Behind Grandma’s House’ by Gary Soto, you should check out similar poems:

Poetry+ Review Corner

Behind Grandma’s House

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Gary Soto (poems)

Gary Soto

'Behind Grandma's House' is a poem inspired by Gary Soto's experience growing up in a ghetto-like neighborhood. While this poem is a fairly known one of Soto's, these days, Soto is more known for his children and young adult fiction than his poetry.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

20th Century

'Behind Grandma's House' as a poem does not take itself too seriously. It did not contribute to any political or social movement despite the abundance of those in its time. The poem is a simple humorous one that does not speak to a concrete time like the then century.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem is familiar in American literary circles due to its simply entertaining nature. It speaks, however, especially to Mexican Americans like Gary Soto himself, considering the setting, characterization, and even diction like "Chale."
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The theme of family relationships is highlighted at the end of the poem. 'Behind Grandma's House' shows a family dynamic that makes one on the outside laugh but might just be a little problematic to one looking from the inside.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The speaker's wellness as a child is questioned throughout the poem. The ten-year-old is clearly an attention seeker with some underlying psychological issues. However, the poem does not take enough of a sober turn to address those.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The abrupt and unexpected end to the poem clearly aims to confuse the audience. However, this feeling does not stay in the readers' hearts for long as it is quickly replaced with the humor of the situation.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The frustration of the speaker as a child is obvious throughout the poem. The gradual escalation of their actions indicates this. They are desperate to receive attention and are continually frustrated when they do not get it in the way they crave it.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Though the poem overall spots potentially problematic themes, the humor of the punchline causes readers to burst into laughter by the end of the poem. This is evidenced by Soto's reading of 'Behind Grandma's House' in 1999.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Bullying is a topic in this poem. Our speaker was a bully who terrorized people and animals. In fact, the only living thing that did not seem to fear the speaker by the end of the poem was their grandma.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The entire poem is about a speaker reminiscing about their childhood. Unfortunately, their childhood days as an attention-seeking menace meeting with harsh discipline are not exactly joyful, even though they make for a good-humored narrative.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Family relationships are explored by the end of the poem. This dynamic is not the conventional kind, depicting a heavy-handed grandma and a problematic grandchild. The grandma most likely understands her grandchild's need for attention. However, she gives it to them in a way they probably did not expect.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The setting of the poem is behind the speaker's grandmother's house. This is apparently where she punched her grandchild. Up until that disciplinary moment, the poem paints a picture of a gentle grandma, which is typically what readers would expect. However, her appearance in the poem called for situational irony.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Free Verse

'Behind Grandma's House' is a conventional free verse. Like any other free verse, it lacks a consistent rhythm, rhyme and meter and only adheres to the speaker's thought process.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...