As the winter holidays roll around, lots of families have a wide variety of traditions that make this time of year that much more special. Whether it be watching a classic movie, reading certain books, decorating the house, going to a parade, or making some sort of holiday treat in the kitchen, every family’s traditions are what create memories that last a lifetime.
The world of children’s literature has the art of holiday books down to a science. There are classics and new books abounding and many families keep these special stories in storage along with all of their holiday decorations that they pull out and enjoy on a yearly basis. We always like to add a book or two to our collection and books absolutely make great holiday gifts.
I have a monthly column in a local publication where I try to write about children’s literature and have been attempting to also make my piece go along with the monthly theme of the magazine. Of course December was about holiday traditions. This proves a little more challenging since my family’s traditions are so different from the rest of the community around us. But as I started to read some books with my girls, my eyes were really opened on just how similar we all are.
In October, J and I were reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree” for our book club. Early on, the boys in the book arrive at the house with the tree in the yard and find a knocker with the face of Jacob Marley. J didn’t know who Jacob Marley was and it made me realize that she also didn’t know the story of “A Christmas Carol.” I randomly came across an illustrated version of the story in our local library and we read it together one day when she was out of school. As we were reading it, the story made me realize what an absolutely wonderful message it holds and how it is something that every child should experience, regardless of their religion.
There are many versions of Dickens’s classic story in print and on film which tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. While on the surface this might be considered a story about Christmas, it is more about the holiday spirit that every person should live with on a daily basis – that family and love are the mightiest gifts of all. Through his visits with the three ghosts, Scrooge learns that living a life with kindness, generosity, and compassion can do more for any of us than focusing on money. There are many adaptions of the story appropriate for various age levels. New this year is a beautiful version by artist Yelena Brykenskova which would make a beautiful keepsake to be enjoyed by families for years to come.
Another newly published book that reminds us to treasure the simple things, but handled in a very comical manner, is Ellis Paul’s “The Night the Lights went out on Christmas.” Highlighting how our society has become so much more commercial and the unconscious desire many have to one-up their neighbors, this story uses the showy light displays that have become so common in recent years to make a point. When one light bulb becomes the final straw in what the power grid could hold, the lights go out on the entire world. In that time, people are actually able to look up and see the stars in the sky and are reminded of the star that guided the three kings so long ago. Inflatable decorations and crazy light shows can be fun, but they are not needed to remind us of the true spirit of the holiday.
Lest we forget that Christmas is not the only holiday being celebrated at this time of year, a classic by Patricia Polacco reminds us with her consummate ability to produce books with beautiful meanings and compassionate characters. In “The Trees of the Dancing Goats,” a picture book aimed at older elementary school kids, a Jewish family realizes that the majority of their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate Christmas because they are all sick. The family finds that it is hard for them to fully celebrate Hanukkah when their friends are unable to enjoy their own holiday traditions. The solution that the family comes up with is to cut down and decorate Christmas trees with handmade trinkets and to deliver meals made with love. This story celebrates that we all have our own important traditions as well as the miracle of true friendship, something that people of every faith can understand.
A final addition that makes a wonderful gift for a young Jewish child but can be enjoyed by everyone is Eric Kimmel’s “Simon and the Bear.” Kimmel’s books are fabulously written and visually stunning. In this story, young Simon leaves his family to make a better life in America. His mother reminds him to celebrate Hanukkah during the voyage for “Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey.” Simon finds himself on the Titanic, so he actually needs a number of miracles. But Simon also looks out for others and performs an exceptionally good deed of giving up his space on a life-boat to a man who has family in America that needs him. This story takes the traditional story of the miracle of Hanukkah and changes it up so that young Simon learns that “miracles aren’t just for the Maccabees…They can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the darkest of times. You just have to believe.”
Whatever your traditions might be, you can most likely find a great book at your local book store to share with a child and create memories. Books are one of the best gifts you can give a child any day of the year.