A Season For Children's Books
- Wednesday, November 24, 2004
"I'm bored!" my thirteen-year-old nephew, Phillips, announced to me while everyone else was snoozing or watching football after our usual family Thanksgiving feast. I raced out to my car and grabbed the two treasures I had packed in case someone had the urge to transport himself to another place in time. The gems were two children's books, Gracias the Thanksgiving Turkey and Strawbeater's Thanksgiving.
I knew I had to tread lightly with my nephew. Any move that could be considered "baby stuff" or suggest there was a hint of educational value, could spell doom for my idea. I nonchalantly laid the two books beside his chair, "I'd like to know what you think about these books. I want to use them with a class of third graders. I know you will give me an honest opinion." He just rolled his eyes at me, and I sat down to read the paper.
I glanced up a few minutes later and heard Phillips giggling at the antics of Gracias. When he finished the book, he looked over at me and said, "Buenos dais, Senioritta. I guess some little kid might like this one. It was pretty funny."
He added, "Aunt, Mary Ann, do you remember when I was little and you read that book to me about the turkey on the backyard fence and then we drew around my hand to make a turkey?" "Sure, I do." I replied. "Well, Mom still has it and she puts it on the refrigerator every Thanksgiving."
I just smiled because I knew involving my nephew with books and activities at an early age had made a lasting impression on him. He was a middle schooler who actually loved reading. I could count on him to be a candid critic of the books I shared with him.
I forgot about the books and left them overnight at my parent's house. The next morning I called to check on my elderly parents. When my mother answered the phone, she said that she had just finished reading Strawbeater's Thanksgiving aloud to my eighty-year-old father.
"We really loved the message and the pictures. It told the story of a little slave boy who worked hard to fulfill his dream of becoming a straw beater. Did you know that a straw beater is a musician who stands behind the fiddler and beats on the strings of the fiddle while it is being played? It was a great book!" she added with the enthusiasm of a satisfied reader.
If a picture book could invite an adolescent to recall with joy an activity he had done nine years earlier and an elderly couple to experience the simple pleasures of a holiday long ago, there must be some magic in pairing books and our November through December holiday season. As a professor of Children's literature and a true lover of the genre, I believe there are some unique qualities that make this pairing so special.
First, children's holiday literature offers a bond of friendship and timelessness. The jolly old man in the red suit has not changed since Clement Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas for his own children in 1822. It is just as enchanting to read about his ride across the sky with his tiny reindeer today as it was then. We can all identify with the jolly old man with "cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry," whether we are seventy or seven.
Next. it allows us to visit other times and places with our friends and family. Just as my eighty year old parents identified with the plight of Sis Wasa and Jess, the slaves in Strawbeater's Thanksgiving, we can all be transported to different times and places through books. What child or adult would not be thrilled to ride the Polar Express to visit Santa and hear the Christmas bells ring? My own son and his friends loved dressing in pajamas, tucking a jingle bell in their pocket, drinking cocoa and listening to this wonderful tale written by Chris Van Allsburg.
Holiday children's literature also gives an anchor for inquiry. One December, after reading Christmas at Long Pond by William George, our family decorated a tree in our yard with treats for the birds. We enjoyed watching these feathered friends all throughout the winter. Fascination with the small evergreen tree which we had decorated, later inspired my son to select a maple tree on our way to his pre-school as "his tree". We discussed how this tree was different from the tree that always stayed green. We watched it change throughout the school year, and recorded the changes in his "Tree Diary".
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