Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Holidays

The holidays can be a tricky time for a school librarian. While it seems impossible to not mention the holidays, it is important to attempt to give equal emphasis to the various practices of my students. This year I headed for the safety of the connection of light that in some way ties the major holidays of this time of year. We touched briefly on Divali despite the fact that came very early this year. The other holidays we discussed were the winter solstice, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day. As you have noticed, that still tips the balance toward Christianity. I try to include other religious and secular holidays throughout the year and hope that this offers a better balance by the end of the year.

In sharing books with the students, my goal is to offer those with little religion and lots of holiday customs. The library owns books that describe the religious stories of the holiday. I put these on display and hope that families will find the books that best serve their own beliefs and practices.

There are hundreds of books about Christmas. Some of them are good and some are just plain awful. Here are a few of my favorites for sharing with my students or personal enjoyment. All of the books on this list are picture books.

When I was a child, the Christmas Eve ritual was for my mother to read Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas. I still can recite long portions of it from memory. Bookstores abound with different illustrations for this classic. What appeals to you may be all wrong for someone else. Jan Brett did some beautiful illustrations a few years ago, but I have heard people grumble that they are too busy. You will have to be your own judge.

Another classic is How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. This is not as much fun to read to children any more because they all think about the movie and think they know the story. They do not relax and enjoy the rhyme as well as the true scoop on the Grinch.

Also affected by the movie is the beautiful Polar Express by Chris Van Allsberg. Don't think you know the charm of this book if all you have done is watched the movie. This is a good book to read with a child snuggled on your lap.

The favorite book for my youngest listeners this year was clearly Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve by Janet Morgan Stoeke. If you have not met this very literal chicken, Christmas may the best time for an introduction to the many books with this winsome protagonist. Minerva Louise sees fancy fireflies on the tree outside her farmers' house. Then she spies a farmer in a red hat on the roof. He falls down the brick well up there so Minerva Louise follows to offer help, soon finding herself inside the house. There are many more confusions as Minerva Louise tries to understand things through the eyes of a chicken. The illustrations are bright and bold and the simple one or two sentence per page text draws even very young listeners into the book as they eagerly correct her mistakes.

Alan Say always uses beautiful illustrations to convey a cross-cultural story. Tree of Cranes takes the reader to Japan where a young boy's mother is remembering Christmas when she lived in the United States. The boy doesn't understand exactly what is happening but appreciates the beautiful tree that his mother makes.

A familiar message is conveyed in The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Pat McKissack. We all remember that perfect gift that we wanted so desperately that we were willing to make all kinds of deals for it, like promising to never ask for anything else ever again. The young girl in this story wants a doll that is beyond the family's budget but she is very convincing and her mother acquiesces. Her sisters want to play with this perfect doll, too, but she is not about to share. That is when she learns the lesson of this story. Adults with laugh and cry with this story and most children will find themselves nodding knowingly at the conclusion.

The surprise ending is just a small part of the fun in Three French Hens by Margie Palatini. Three French hens are sent to a true love, but get lost in the mail and end up not in Paris but in New York City. These three girls want to fulfill their duty so they seek out Phillippe Renard, settling for plain, old Phil Fox whose only friend is the cockroach who shares his apartment. When the hens arrive Phil sees breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but these hens are too kind to ever be eaten. Palatini is a master of puns. Read this and laugh.

For sheer goofiness around the tree, try Where Did They Hide My Presents? by Alan Katz which sticks some new words into familiar Christmas songs.

Books about Hanukkah are not as easy to find. The best stories for this holiday seem to be all be written by Eric A. Kimmel who also writes great picture books about many other topics. Three of my favorites by Kimmel are The Chanukkah Guest in which a grandmother thinks that the Old Bear who comes to her house is the rabbi, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which is full of magic and trickery, and Jar of Fools: Eight Hanukkah Stories from Chelm which presents the humorous tales of Chelm in a very accessible format. The last of those three books is not a picture book, but an enjoyable story collection with a few illustrations.

Another Hanukkah story that my first and second grade students enjoy is The Inside-Out Grandma by Joan Rothenberg. Rosie notices that her grandma is wearing all of her clothes inside out and asks why. This leads to a long list of memories that finally lead to remembering to buy enough oil to fry latkes for the entire family. My classes follow up the story with good discussions of how to remember things and what is important things to remember.

Kwanzaa has even fewer good books. There are only a handful of books that I have found that explain this uniquely American holiday. Of the ones in our school library, the best is Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Because there is so much to explain about the holiday, the students are soon bored with all of the wordiness required. This would be great to read one night at a time so that the new Swahili words as well as the difficult concepts are fresh in the reader's mind.

Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela Shelf Medaris is a good story from Africa that makes the principles of Kwanzaa more easily understood. The story is one of the few that I have had older students come back to re-read. They are impressed by the cooperation of the brothers involved in the story and clever solution to their problem.

Whatever holidays you will be celebrating this year, my best wishes go out for them to be happy for one and all. My holidays will include travel, family, and friends and several good books.

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