Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, illustrated by Alex Bostic

Published by Union Square Kids

Summary:  This free verse poem begins with the news arriving in Galveston, Texas: the war is over, and “all who live in bondage here shall from now until be free.”  The words and oil paintings depict Black people’s reactions.  Some head for their shacks, which they now declare home; some go to another farm to work “for a pittance and a little plot of space.”  Others pray, dance, or head farther away.  The last few pages depict their descendants celebrating that freedom, right up to the present day.  An author’s note tells how she was introduced to Juneteenth in the 1980’s and wrote this poem, originally published in 2004, and how Juneteenth has gained wider recognition, eventually becoming a national holiday in 2021.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The beautiful words and pictures in this book make it an excellent addition to Juneteenth literature, and a perfect way to observe the holiday.

Cons:  It would have been interesting to get more information about the fate of the different people portrayed in the book, and how their decisions to stay close to home or travel affected their futures.

Raquela’s Seder by Joel Edward Stein, illustrated by Sara Ugolotti

Published by Kar-Ben Publishing

Summary:  Raquela and her family live in Spain during a time when it’s forbidden for them to practice their Jewish faith.  They celebrate Shabbat each week in their wine cellar, but Raquela has only heard about Passover.  One year she asks her parents if they can have a seder.  Her mother says it’s too dangerous, but her father, a great fisherman, gets a thoughtful look in his eyes.  The night before Passover begins, Raquela’s parents pack a basket, and the next night they sneak onto her dad’s fishing boat.  Papá takes them to his favorite secret fishing spot, where they drop anchor and proceed to have a seder dinner.  An old fisherman sees them when they return, saying that it must have been a special night for Papá to take his family out fishing with him.  Raquela says to her father, “It was a night different from all other nights.”  Includes additional information about Passover and the Spanish Inquisition and its consequences for Spanish Jews.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  An excellent book for celebrating Passover that weaves the original Passover story into the Spanish one and focuses on the hope and endurance of both groups of Jews.

Cons:  I wouldn’t have objected to a bit more historical back matter.

Playing With Lanterns by Wang Yage, illustrated by Zhe Chengliang, translated by Helen Wang

Published by Amazon Crossing

Playing with Lanterns: Yage, Wang, Chengliang, Zhu, Wang, Helen:  9781542029841: Amazon.com: Books
Welcoming the New Year with a blog tour: Playing with Lanterns – Mom Read It

Summary:  Zhao Di and her friends live in northern China, where the new year is celebrated for 15 days.  A highlight is the lanterns, traditionally given by uncles, that are lit and carried through the dark nights.  The children gather each night, chasing each other, waving their lanterns, and enjoying fireworks.  On day 15, Zhao Di feels sad that the holiday is coming to an end.  The lanterns are smashed and burned.  The next night, Zhao Di misses going out with her friends, but remembers that the new year will be celebrated again next year.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about the Lunar New Year and the lantern tradition.  40 pages, ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another good resource for the Lunar New Year, this one translated from the original Chinese.  The illustrations celebrate the color and magic of the lanterns.

Cons:  The first three pages of the story are in the first person (“We spent the first day of the new year at home.”); after that it switches to Zhao Di’s third person narrative for the rest of the book, which felt like an unnecessarily awkward transition.

Friends Are Friends Forever by Dane Liu, illustrated by Lynn Scurfield

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Friends Are Friends, Forever: Liu, Dane, Scurfield, Lynn: 9781250778185:  Amazon.com: Books
Friends Are Friends, Forever

Summary:  Dandan finds out her family is moving just days before Lunar New Year.  She and her best friend Yueyue try to enjoy every moment of the celebration.  They stuff themselves with Nainai’s delicious dumplings.  When the grown-ups start to play cards, the two girls make red paper snowflakes, put them in pans of water, and set them outside, where they see fireworks in the night sky.  The next morning, they hang their frozen snowflakes from trees, and Yueyue gives Dandan red paper to take with her.  Dandan struggles in her new home, feeling lonely as she tries to learn English.  Her classmates laugh at her when she wears a silk dress on her birthday, but one girl, Christina, compliments the dress.  Soon the two girls are friends, and Dandan invites Christina over for Lunar New Year.  She pulls out Yueyue’s gift, and the girls make snowflakes and put them in the freezer.  The next morning, they hang them on a tree outside, and Dandan remembers Yueyue’s parting words, “Friends are friends, forever.”  Includes an author’s note about Lunar New Year and her own experiences moving from China to the U.S. and instructions for making snowflakes.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A heartwarming story of immigration and cherished friendships in the old home and the new, just in time for Lunar New Year (today).  The cartoon-style illustrations add a light note.

Cons:  Kids might struggle to cut paper that’s been folded four times, as per the snowflake instructions.

Two holiday books for Christmas Eve

20 Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas by Mark Lee, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

Published by Candlewick

Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas by Mark Lee: 9781536212532 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books
Amazon.com: Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas: 9781536212532:  Lee, Mark, Cyrus, Kurt: Books

The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Published by Beach Lane Books

The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story: Winter, Jonah, Winter,  Jeanette: 9781665902137: Amazon.com: Books
The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story: Winter, Jonah, Winter,  Jeanette: 9781665902137: Amazon.com: Books

Summary: Santa and interlibrary loan brought me these two holiday books just days before Christmas. In 20 Big Trucks Before Christmas, two boys watch the holiday preparations in their town which require–you guessed it–twenty big trucks. A mishap hanging the star atop the tree inspires the donut truck driver to take the donut off his truck, decorate it with red and green lights, and use it to replace the star. When Santa arrives in a pickup, it’s time for the celebration to begin!

We’ve seen Rockefeller the owl already this year in The Christmas Owl. This version of the story, by the Winter mother-and-son team, focuses on the wild owl: “The owl didn’t have a name–and of course she didn’t: She was a wild animal.” Humans are necessary to help her when she’s trapped in the tree destined for Rockefeller Center, but after her stay at the wildlife rehabilitation center, she is “back in the wild, back in the trees, somewhere out there under the stars.” An author’s note tells a bit more of the story. Both books are 32 pages and recommended for ages 4-8.

Pros: Here are two illustrators that really should get more recognition. Kurt Cyrus’s lifelike pictures of machinery are always popular with kids, and Jeanette Winter, who is 82 years old and has written and illustrated dozens of books, has a beautiful folk-art style that’s perfect for Rockefeller’s story.

Cons: I wish I could have gotten these books a few weeks sooner so I could have shared them with kids before vacation.

Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Published by Levine Querido

Red and Green and Blue and White: Wind, Lee, Zelinsky, Paul O.:  9781646140879: Amazon.com: Books
Red and Green and Blue and White: Wind, Lee, Zelinsky, Paul O.:  9781646140879: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Isaac’s house is the only one on the block decorated in blue and white instead of red and green as he and his best friend (and neighbor) Teresa count down the days until Chanukah and Christmas.  Then one night a rock is thrown through the window of Isaac’s house.  The family is scared but determined not to let their fear make them hide their faith.  The next night, they light the menorah again.  When Teresa sees the lit candles, she draws a picture of the menorah with the words “For Isaac,” and hangs it in her front window.  Before long, others in town show the same support.  Their drawings get on the news, and a few weeks later, there are 10,000 menorah pictures hanging in windows all over.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about the 1993 real-life event in Billings, Montana that inspired this story.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This brief but moving story tells of the power of good triumphing over evil, a perfect theme for the holiday season.  The illustrations are filled with cozy comfort that’s in contrast to the broken glass on the cover.  

Cons:  Most reviewers recommend this for ages 4 and up, but I think the story would be better appreciated by an older audience, especially if you’re reading it to a group. 

The Christmas Owl by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

The Christmas Owl: Based on the True Story of a Little Owl Named  Rockefeller: Sterer, Gideon, Kalish, Ellen, Kaulitzki, Ramona:  9780316299121: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Wildlife rehabilitator Ellen Kalish tells the story of Rockefeller, an owl whose tree home was cut down and taken to Rockefeller Center for Christmas.  Filled with questions about what Christmas is and what is happening to her home, the owl is finally rescued from the tree and taken to Ravensbeard Wildlife Center.  There, Ellen nurses her back to health until she’s finally ready to fly off on her own.  She makes a stop at Rockefeller Center, where she sees happy people holding hands and hugging, celebrating the spirit of the holiday.  She flies back home, eager to tell her animal friends there what she has learned about Christmas.  Includes an author’s note about her career as a wildlife rehabilitator and additional information about Rockefeller’s story.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A charming holiday story that reminded me of one of my favorite Christmas read-alouds, Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares.  Kids will take Rockefeller to heart, and the additional information at the end makes her story even more interesting.

Cons:  There was a little too much anthropomorphism for my taste, considering this is based on a true story.

Happy Diwali! by Sanyukta Mathur and Courtney Pippin-Mathur illustrated by Courtney Pippin-Mathur

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Happy Diwali!: 9781250257468: Mathur, Sanyukta, Pippin-Mathur, Courtney,  Pippin-Mathur, Courtney: Books - Amazon.com

Summary:  A girl and her family prepare for Diwali by cleaning and decorating the house, cooking food, and dressing up.  Family and friends arrive for a full day of ceremonies, feasting, gift-giving, and more.  As night falls, everyone enjoys sparklers on the lawn before saying their goodbyes.  Includes additional information about Diwali, a glossary, and three recipes.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A good simple introduction to the holiday of Diwali with brightly-colored illustrations and a glossary to help out with words and phrases that may be unfamiliar.  The story is based on the authors’ experience, and they make it clear in the note at the end that there are a variety of ways to celebrate.

Cons:  It seems like a not-so-great editorial decision to release this book on November 16 when Diwali was the first week of November this year.

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread by Carla Hall, illustrated by Cherise Harris

Published by Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread: Hall, Carla, Harris, Cherise:  9781534494695: Amazon.com: Books
Carla and the Christmas Cornbread: Hall, Carla, Harris, Cherise:  9781534494695: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Carla is excited to be going to her grandparents’ house for Christmas with her sister and mother.  The anticipation builds as the family enjoys Christmas Eve dinner, including Granny’s delicious cornbread.  Carla and her sister get ready for bed, deciding to do a puzzle before they go to sleep.  As her sister lays out the puzzle pieces, Carla takes a big bite of a sugar cookie she sees out on the table.  Too late, she realizes the cookie was meant for Santa, and worries that she will now be on the naughty list.  Granny saves the day, assuring Carla that Santa still loves her and probably gets tired of so many cookies; she helps Carla make a small skillet of cornbread to leave instead.  In the morning, the skillet is empty except for a single slice left behind for the baker.  Includes recipes for cornbread and cinnamon butter.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Another heartwarming Christmas story featuring a Black Santa, this one by celebrity chef Carla Hall.  The illustrations place the story in the early 1970’s, but the family holiday story has a timeless feel to it.

Cons:  When you realize that the interior design fashions of your childhood have really not stood the test of time.

Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson, illustrated by Reggie Brown

Published by Dial Books

Santa in the City: Jackson, Tiffany D., Brown, Reggie: 9780593110256: Amazon.com:  Books
Santa in the City: Jackson, Tiffany D., Brown, Reggie: 9780593110256: Amazon.com:  Books

Summary:  Deja’s excited about Christmas, but not all of her friends share her belief in Santa.  But all their reasons why the jolly old elf can’t possibly exist are countered by her mom, who offers one explanation after another throughout the season.  At a family Christmas Eve celebration, other relatives back up Mom’s logic.  Finally, Deja, like so many children before her, decides to wait up for Santa, but ultimately falls asleep.  When she wakes up Christmas morning, she finds a pile of presents…and a photo of a smiling Santa.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A heartwarming Christmas story that makes Santa accessible to children of color and those who live in city apartments.  The brightly-colored digital illustrations bring the warm family holiday scenes to life.

Cons:  It wasn’t clear to me how the photo of Santa was created.  Christmas magic, I guess.