Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Kwanzaa

Much like the other December holidays, Kwanzaa has few truly worthy books for me to suggest. There are those that are preachy and/or teachy but few that add a good story to that mix.

Luckily there is a new one this year that is charming, clever, and teaches a great deal about this holiday that is not well understood outside of the African American community. Li'l Rabbit's Kwanzaa by Donna L. Washington is perfect for young listeners to learn a little bit about the seven principles of Kwanzaa with a sweet text and bright illustrations leading them along. Li'l Rabbit wants Granna Rabbit to be well enough to join in the traditional feast, Karamu, but Mama Rabbit is too worried and Granna is too ill to make it happen. Li'l Rabbit sets out to find a way to cheer everyone and celebrate the way they have in years past. Of course Li'l Rabbit is successful in some joyfully surprising ways. The book includes an explanation of Nguzo Saba--The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa with instructions to look back through the story to find examples of each principle. My group of young listeners who had barely heard of Kwanzaa left the library knowing a little more about the holiday and smiling over a good story.

Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela Shelf Medearis is a somewhat more complex story that springs from an original African folktale. Readers will learn about the Ghanian art of weaving Kente cloth as well as the seven principles of Kwanzaa as they follow this story of a father, a weaver, who asks his sons to make gold from silk tread. They learn to work together while each bringing unique talents to the problem. The story reads like a true folktale and does not get overly preachy. I have had older students come back to request a re-reading of this story and talk about what they learned from it when they first heard it in first or second grade. The illustrations are beautifully lush with lots of red and gold. The book also includes notes about the holidays and some craft ideas.

May your Kwanzaa and the new year be filled with the seven principles of Kwanzaa:
Ujima--Collective Work and Responsibility
Ujamaa--Cooperative Economics

Merry Christmas

Frankly, I find good children's books for Christmas to be few and far between. Most either try too hard and end up being schmaltzy or seem to feel that a carelessly placed Santa here and there means that there is no need to focus on plot. Therefore this list is short and has taken much more thought than is evident.

When I was a child the Christmas Eve tradition was to sit under the tree while my mother read Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nickolas (Also commonly known as The Night Before Christmas). Now, nearly 200 years after it was first written, there are still myriad editions of this classic available. My advice to anyone looking for a copy to keep for family Christmas for years to come is to look at as many different ones and choose the illustrations that best suit your idea of what the story should include. If you are looking for video editions a quick Google search will find many. My students in grades K-2 preferred a video made in 1950 that starred marionettes but I confess that it got old quickly for me. They said the video with Wynton Marsalis was too confusing even though they giggled along with me through many of the scenes.

There are just two picture books that stick out in my mind as being worth a Christmas visit. Readers who are just getting a grasp on Christmas symbols as well as those who are older will enjoy Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve by Janet Morgan Stoeke. The curious chicken, Minerva Louise, tries to understand the lighting bugs on the tree outside the farm house. More confusing changes are found when she slips inside, like the chicken who sits atop the indoor tree and has laid colorful eggs all over the tree. Children love to point out her mistakes as she identifies the items that mean Christmas to most children, but apparently not to chickens.

Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer will appeal to adults as well as the children to whom they read this clever book. Olivia, the young pig of great charm and energy, is eager to help her family get ready for the arrival of Christmas. As the song in Free to Be You and Me (or was it Free to Be a Family?) says, "Some kinds of help are the kind of help we all could do without." Olivia is a perfect example of this truism, but it is impossible to angry with her since she is so earnest about her efforts and her excitement.

I am not sure why there are children's novels written for Christmas. I can rarely get anyone to try to read them. Often a good story goes unread just because it is set at Christmas. That is the case with The Christmas Genie by Dan Gutman. This discussion of how a class can decide on one wish that will be fair to everyone is a worthy one, if not the best written book by Gutman. The genie arrives on the day before break begins with one wish to give fifth grade class, but only if they can decide together in just one hour. The resulting suggestions and the discussions about them are both humorous and philosophical. I wish that teachers could share it with their classes throughout the year but this emphasis on Christmas limits its appeal and its usefulness.

The Christmas Rat by Avi is another book that could be set at any time of the year and be just as good. I have gotten some people to read this at other times of the year when they request a scary book. Eric is an eleven year old boy who is home alone in the his apartment because it is Christmas vacation and waiting for the exterminator that his mother has sent to come. The exterminator turns out to be one very strange man who enjoys his job a little more than he should. Don't read this book when you are home alone.

I suggest that instead of limiting yourself to Christmas books, you reach out for a good book set any time of the year. Forget about the weather and lose yourself where ever the book takes you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happy Hanukkah

Yes, yes, I know that Hanukkah is long over for the year, but I had to share my favorite books of the holiday with students before I could readily tell folks which ones I like best. I am sticking with my favorites, all of which are by the amazing Eric Kimmel who not only writes books of stories from the Jewish tradition, but also has myriad original stories and retellings of folktales from world cultures. Simply stated, any book with Kimmel's name on it is worth a good look and probably belongs in your collection.

For the younger listeners in my group, I prefer The Chanukah Guest which features a hungry and confused bear who drops in on Bubba Brayna when he smells her latkes cooking. Bubba Brayna is a good cook but, as she nears the age of 100, her eyes and ears are failing her. She mistakes the bear for the rabbi. Kids love the confusion as they go through the rituals of the first night of the holiday.

Students in second grade and up invariably request Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which has a little bit of humor, lots of almost ghastly goblins, and several clever tricks to suit every taste as Hershel works for eight nights to save Hanukkah. Reading it out loud is hard on my voice as I try to make each goblin from the one the size of a horsefly to the gigantic King of the Goblins have a different and appropriate voice.

Storytellers and their listeners delight in The Jar of Fools: Eight Hanukkah Stories from Chelm. Perhaps you already know how the city of Chelm came to be filled with fools when angels were sent to deliver fools, the wise, the honest, the dishonest, and so forth in even number to every city around the world. Unfortunately for Chelm (but a boon for storytellers), the angel carrying fools, tripped upon approaching the city, filling it full of fools with no room for the more clear headed. This book includes that history plus eight examples of the problems of having a city of fools. There is the story of the pitchfork that is used for a menorah, the young boy who finds something far, far better than chicken fat for frying latkes, and the stranger who rents them a magic spoon for mixing up the best latkes ever. The stories read well and are joy to tell.

Speaking of telling stories, it is one of the joys of my job to listen to the stories that the children tell. I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. While some of the students told stories that matched very closely what I have been told and read, some were an interesting mix of stories from various holidays, not all of which were Jewish. Locusts, various kings, babies in the rushes and in mangers, and Santa Claus all made guest appearances before we got things narrowed down a bit. I was pleased to see the smiles of those who knew the story from Hebrew School and were so proud to share it. However, my favorite moment may have been when it took a Muslim and a Hindu to give the most accurate description in a class of first grade students.