With the Thanksgiving “history” we learned in school being largely debunked, many of the traditional holiday books no longer feel appropriate. Here’s a list of books I’ve reviewed over the years that focus on other aspects of the holiday, like family, feasts, and gratitude.
Twelve Dinging Doorbells: An Every-Holiday Carol by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Published by Kokila
Summary: As the subtitle suggests, this is a book that could be used for any large family gathering, although it’s based on “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The cumulative text begins with “a sweet potato pie just for me,” then goes on to two selfie queens, three posh sibs, all the way to eleven stinky sides (side dishes) and twelve crowded steps as an extended family gathers for a holiday meal. Macaroni and cheese replace five golden rings with different variations as the day goes on (lots of mac and cheese, where’s my mac and cheese, and finally, who needs mac and cheese?). The narrator and her grandmother share the sweet potato pie–just for her–on the final page. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A great holiday choice that features a joyful Black family’s gathering with colorful illustrations, all kinds of people, and plenty of yummy food.
Cons: While I enjoyed the macaroni and cheese humor, I kind of missed the number five.
The Perfect Tree by Corinne Demas, illustrated by Penelope Dullaghan
Published by Harry N. Abrams
Summary: Bunny goes out the day before Christmas looking for a tree that is just her size. Along the way, she meets different animals who all have ideas about what makes the perfect tree: Squirrel says it should be bushy like his tail, Mole looks for a tree with a point like a mole’s nose, Cardinal thinks color is the most important ingredient, and Skunk says that it’s smell. Each tree Bunny finds lacks one of those characteristics. Finally, too cold to look any further, she heads for home. To her surprise, she discovers the perfect tree not far from where she lives. She runs to get her saw but can’t bring herself to cut the tree down. The animals get together and decorate their outdoor tree, then gather around it to sing carols. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: Kids will love this heartwarming Christmas story with its repeating text, adorable animals, and happy ending.
Cons: The final tree doesn’t seem to fit Bunny’s criteria for being “just her size”.
Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday by Denise Kiernan, illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Published by Philomel Books
Summary: Starting with a few thoughts about gratitude and how it’s expressed around the world, the book moves to the history of American Thanksgiving, with Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign to create a national Thanksgiving holiday. Abraham Lincoln finally agreed, declaring the holiday for November 26, 1863. It was challenging to find much to be grateful for in the midst of the Civil War, but people celebrated and have continued to up to the present. Turkey dinners, marching bands, and soup kitchens are all depicted as ways Thanksgiving is observed, and readers are asked to cite their own favorite parts of Thanksgiving. Includes additional resources. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An excellent resource for those revisiting the history of Thanksgiving, as no mention is made of the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag. It’s a good update to Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson (2002). The excellent illustrations will serve as a good springboard for discussing kids’ heritages and traditions.
Cons: It felt like the book tried to cover a lot of ground, making it feel a bit disjointed at times.
Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, and Alexis Bunten illustrated by Garry Meeches Sr.
Published by Charlesbridge
Summary: Maple and Quill love visiting N8hkumuhs (pronounced NOO-kuh-mus), their grandmother, and hearing her stories. One story she tells is of Weeâchumun (corn), and how she and her sisters Beans and Squash helped new people who came to their land. They sent dreams to the First People to alert them of the newcomers’ plight, and the people sent Ousamequin and Tisquantum to greet them and show them how to plant corn, beans, and squash. When there was a successful harvest, the First People and the new people celebrated together with a three-day feast. “Many Americans call it a day of thanksgiving,” concludes N8hkumuhs. “Many of our people call it a day of mourning.” Includes a glossary and introduction at the beginning and additional information about the Wampanoag tribes, storytelling tradition, harvest feasts, and tradition of giving thanks at the end, as well as a recipe and a photo of the real Maple and Quill. 32 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: An excellent addition to Thanksgiving collections that gives the Wampanoag perspective and includes some good information in the back matter. The illustrations beautifully portray various animals and the spirits of the Three Sisters.
Cons: Kids might need some help with the transition between the opening scene with N8hkumuhs, Maple, and Quill and the main story. I was confused until I realized that the weeâchumun (corn) that N8hkumuhs mentioned was the same as Weeâchumun, the spirit of corn and the protagonist of N8hkumuhs’ story.
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
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.
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
The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Published by Beach Lane 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.