Roundup: Ten Holiday Books with Heart-Comforting Perspectives

Here, a list of just a few of my favorite holiday books that share heart-comforting perspectives:

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2005)
This is a beautiful story about taking the higher ground through family, home, and joy in spite of a climate of doubt, fear, and hate. Painted illustrations depict family, play, rituals. music, and the warmth of community. Angelou inclusively writes: “We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas. We beckon this good season to wait awhile with us. We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come. Peace.”

The Nutcracker in Harlem by T.E. McMorrow, illustrated by James Ransome (HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017)
Set in Harlem’s Sugar Hill in the 1920s, this re-telling of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is lovely. Fictional characters are named after influential musicians of the Harlem Renaissance Adelaide Hall, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway — each of whom influence the main character, Marie, as she looks up to them as her role models.

The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya, illustrated by Amy Cordova (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2015)
There are three stories in my edition: The Farolitos of Christmas, Season of Renewal, and A Child’s Christmas in New Mexico, 1944. Each story is a little lengthy for a picture book, but the stories capture the attention of my children, all the same. In The Farolitos of Christmas, Luz wants to carry on the village tradition of lighting luminarias in her village of San Juan in New Mexico. Her abuelo is sick, though, and her Papa is away in the army, so emergent Luz comes up with a creative way to keep the ritual alive, so that the farolitos “shone like guiding lights, welcoming the family home.”

The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Hyperion Books for Children, 2003)
To me, the term “heart-comforting” doesn’t always mean sappy and sweet and happy. Our hearts need sad stories, also, for comfort. Stories that move our children to quietly reflect, grieve, and sometimes even cry. The Stone Lamp is that kind of book, as historical Jewish moments of hardship are poetically told through the perspectives of eight different children.

A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Hyperion Books for Children, 2000)
This is a re-telling of the birth of Jesus with sparse text and realistic illustrations. Jesus, his parents, and the angels are depicted as black, so the imagery offers a fresh, needed perspective on this beloved Christmas story. My only frustration with this one is the factual error of Jesus being born in a barn (a common misconception that the adult book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, straightens out). Sadly A Child is Born is now out of print, but can still be found at an awesome library or used bookstore near you.

Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough, illustrated by Lee White (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2017)
Almost every mom friend I know has at some point posted Brockenbrough’s letter to her daughter Lucy — The Truth About Santa — on one of their virtual walls. It makes the rounds of the Internet every holiday season. The author is a friend of mine, and I always get a little fan-friend proud when her letter gets shared in unexpected circles. Martha’s letter to her child elevates the simple answer to whether Santa is real or not to that of faith: in family, friends, and yourself. “Here, I’m talking about love, which will light your life from the inside out, even when things feel cold and dark.” This is one of those golden nuggets of parenting wisdom that can be shared with children when they are ready to know “the beautiful truth about Santa.”

The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Clarion Books, 2011)
“My father collects tears,” begins Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, telling this Christmas story through the eyes of a young boy who joins his father at work collecting sap from knotty trees that seem as if they are crying. The “tears” are sold to the spice merchant, who uses them for medicine, wine, and funerals. (In modern-day terms, we’d probably say essential oils.) The young boy is honored by the chance to help his father in his trade, then proud to learn that the tear he harvested will transform into the gift of myrrh for a very special baby.

Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story by Barbara Brown Taylor, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo (Flyaway Books, 2018)
Stunningly illustrated, this book offers a unique take on the Christmas story by telling it from the perspective of the three wise men — who don’t know each other at first, but end up meeting on the road to Jerusalem after they all pursue the bright star lodged in their right eyes. I love that this book offers a diverse perspective and also portrays Mary as playful.

Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 2002)
Year after year, this book remains one of my daughters’ very favorites. It’s a re-told story about a tapestry that ultimately ends up reuniting a Jewish couple who had been separated from each other during the Holocaust, each believing the other dead. When they both separately find themselves in a church, they discover their wedding tapestry. The pastor and his son realize their connection and on Christmas Eve, help bring the couple back together. It’s a lovely, non-preachy honoring of Jewish and Christian perspectives, as viewed through the relationship of a soft-hearted boy and his caring father.

Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas by Hisako Aoki, illustrated  by Ivan Gantschev (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1982)
Our preschool teacher first told us about this book, a lovely story that helps make sense of both the Santa and Jesus narratives. Gantschev’s watercolor illustrations are beautiful.

 

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Aunt Fanny’s Star

AuntFannysStarIn the midst of grieving a death in our family, I was touched to have discovered the picture book Aunt Fanny’s Star (Minedition, 2017), written by Austrian writer Brigitte Weninger and illustrated by Turkey’s prominent Feridun Oral.

In the story, playful Aunt Fanny moves in with her bunny family, courageously preparing to die while being looked after by Mama Bunny. Death, and caring for aging family members, are topics that are normalized — something our culture often struggles with. The children understand from the start that Aunt Fanny is aging and that her stay isn’t indefinite. At one point young Tony asks, “Do you want to leave? Don’t you like us anymore?” To which Aunt Fanny replies, “Of course I do, but at some point, each of us must go elsewhere—to that place where we were before we were born. It is where we return when we die.”

While there is no hiding the ultimate futility of death from the children, play still abounds. “Aunt Fanny always had time to play, and she had more silliness in her head than the three little bunnies put together.” She braids daisy crowns for the young bunnies, sculpts their carrots into crocodiles and radishes into pigs, passes along cherished family recipes, and sleds down the snow-capped hillsides with the children. It’s a beautiful portrait of the power of play in the face of separation and alarm.

Aunt Fanny also lovingly helps find ways for the children to hold on to her once she dies. A star-gazer, Aunt Fanny shows the kids how one day she’ll fly away to twinkle in the sky with the other stars. And she introduces the young bunnies to her treasure box, sharing stories from her childhood and trinkets for them to remember her by.

After Aunt Fanny dies, family and friends sing and weep together at her funeral. Because of the opportunity to “kiss the corpse,” so to speak, and to find their tears, the children adapt and ultimately find rest in knowing they can see Aunt Fanny in the stars twinkling back at them.

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Roundup: Fabulous Books About Immigrants and Refugees – Picture Books

Yesterday I shared some wonderful middle-grade books about refugees and immigrants. Today, I continue the theme by posting some of my favorite picture books that offer children and their adult caregivers insight into the immigrant’s experience:

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic, 2014)
A Jewish folktale about love and adaptation, lovingly telling various family portraits through an immigrant’s coat that is passed down, and transformed, through the generations.

Carmen Learns English by Judy Cox, illustrated by Angela N. Dominguez (Holiday House, 2010)
The story of young Carmen, who’s just moved to America from Mexico and starts a brand-new school with “So many kids! And no one spoke Spanish.” Carmen says, “They talked muy fast and I did not understand.” This lesser-known book is full of all kinds of gems — modeling sibling hierarchy, soft hearts, and strong adult attachments. Link to my full review here.

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, 2013)
A grandpa recounts to his grandchild his life stories as an Italian-American immigrant, through the sharing of various sentimental items he has stored in matchboxes. Touches on themes of grandparent-child relationships, hierarchy, caring adults, and resiliency.

Fiona’s Lace by Patricia Polacco (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
A strong attachment village is portrayed in this story that uses the metaphor of lace to portray generations connected together, as well as the Irish immigrant experience.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (Aladdin Books, 2001)
Family heirlooms and traditions – inter-generational attachments and belonging in the story of a Russian family moving to New York.

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits (Candlewick, 2012)
A young Korean girl adapts to her move to another country, and in the process finds herself.

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Roundup: Fabulous Books About Immigrants and Refugees – MG Novels

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of America’s first Refugee Travel Ban. According to World Relief Seattle:

“Over the course of the first year of the Trump Administration, just 29,725 refugees have been admitted to the U.S., compared to 99,183 the previous year. Even as President Trump set the refugee arrivals ceiling for this fiscal year at a historically low 45,000, we are only on track to resettle half that number.”

Misconceptions about refugees – combined with a lack of understanding of the United States’ extreme vetting process, actual statistics on terrorism-related crimes, as well as the economic impact of refugees – have driven the fear-based ban … overshadowing the human perspective in what is the worst displacement crisis since World War II.

Time to glean some insight and caring! What better way to offer kids (and adults!) knowledge and empathy of refugees and immigrants than to read stories told from their perspective?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite middle-grade novels about refugee and immigrant experiences:

Refugeee Books-Novels-lowres

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009)
Told through alternating viewpoints, this novel for ages 10+ about undocumented immigrants living on Tyler’s family farm is timely and at times heart-wrenching. Featuring hierarchical relationships, holding on to attachments, tender relationships with grandparents.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2011)
A strong alpha mother leads her gifted ten-year-old daughter through big struggles: understanding war, coming to terms with the death of her father, moving to a new country, and adjusting to a new culture while experiencing religious pressures, racism, and bullying. Link to my full review here.

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic Press, 2015)
Attachment village, ancestral connections, grief, futility, and adaptation dynamics are at play in this poignant story about 12-year-old Lily and her friendship with a migrant worker’s daughter, who are brought together for the blueberry picking season, thanks to a shared love of Lily’s blind dog Lucky. As the book begins: “The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch.”

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2010)
This eloquent novel is based on the true story of 11-year-old Salva, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who fled to Ethiopia and then Kenya, and ultimately, many years and sorrows later, to the United States because of Sudan’s violent civil war that ripped him apart from his family and home. It’s a page-turning book about adaptation, grief, emotion, family … and ultimately resiliency.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Little, Brown, 2014)
A heartfelt story of 12-year-old Sudanese refugee named Amira, who, despite incredibly difficult life circumstances, is surrounded by a loving family in a traditional attachment village. Caring adults, tears, and true play help the main character adapt and grow.

The Bone Collector’s Son by Paul Yee (Marshall Cavendish, 2004)
An historical novel set in Vancouver’s 1907 Chinatown, this is the story of 14-year-old Bing. His life helping his father collect bones from graves is hard, often alarming. His father is a compulsive gambler and at times downright mean. Between that, and the racism and physical violence young Bing endures, at times the book can be hard to read. But it’s an important depiction of futility and adaptation in the face of brutal racism, and ultimately shows how even one caring adult, even briefly in a child’s life, can make a difference for a struggling child.

Tomorrow, I’ll share a few of my favorite refugee and immigrant-focused picture books.

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The Hate U Give

the-hate-u-give-angie-thomasAngie Thomas’s young-adult novel, The Hate U Give, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I truly could not put it down, and the only hate I have to give this book is the fact that it ended! I wasn’t ready to close the cover on Starr and her family and friends, who felt like they’d pulled me into their inner circle, letting me be a part of their lives through this compelling, intense, authentic, sad, and also heart-warming story.

There is much to say about this book that features 16-year old Starr Carter, who is the sole witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil. Since the novel’s release in 2017 much has already been said. It’s been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for 40-some weeks now. The film is forthcoming, complete with a stand-out cast. The Hate U Give was a finalist for both the 2017 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and the Kirkus Prize, as well as listed on TIME’s Top 10 Young Adult & Children’s Books of 2017. Early reviews, a large number of which were starred, called it a classic and a book everyone should read.

The Hate U Give (Balzer & Bray, 2017) is a powerful coming-of-age story that honestly, powerfully, and fairly speaks to police brutality, the modern-day civil rights movement, racial stereotypes, finding one’s voice, interracial relationships, living authentically, and systemic racism.

Since the focus of reviews on this blog is to discuss how books pertain to the Neufeld paradigm, I will touch on one aspect of The Hate U Give that I haven’t seen mentioned in many of the reviews, and that is the portrayal of Starr’s village of attachment. It’s largely Starr’s wide circle of caring adults in her family and community, I believe, that create in the story such a beautiful tone of hope and love, even in the midst of some very dire situations. While Starr’s mostly black urban neighborhood of Garden Heights is painted as poor and gang-ridden, Thomas portrays Starr’s community as rich in heart, abundant with people who care, nurture, and unconditionally love their young.

Child developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld regularly speaks of the importance of caring adults in a child’s life – people to treat our children’s hearts tenderly when peers, and the world in general, can be so wounding. “In today’s society, attachment voids abound,” Dr. Neufeld writes in his best-selling book Hold On to Your Kids. “Children often lack close relationships with older generations – the people who, for much of human history, were often better able than parents themselves to offer the unconditional loving acceptance that is the bedrock of emotional security.”

Not so in Starr’s world, in that regard. No matter the hard circumstances and alarm she’s faced with – even when she is physically in danger because of the color of her skin – it’s as if her soft heart is bubble-wrapped in protection because of the support she receives from so many caring adults in her attachment village.

First, there’s Mr. Reuben, owner of the BBQ shop who “remembers everybody’s names, somehow,” and genuinely connects with, and cares about, the youth in his community who frequent his restaurant. Here’s a lovely snippet from a scene after Mr. Reuben asks Starr and her friend Kenya how school’s going and whether they’re staying out of trouble:

“’How ‘bout some pound cake on the house then? Reward for good behavior.’

We say yeah and thank him. But see, Mr. Reuben could know about Kenya’s fight and would offer her pound cake regardless. He’s nice like that.”

Mr. Reuben intuitively seems to know that “the way to the heart is through one’s stomach,” isn’t just an old adage. The provision of food to help foster attachment has been proven both culturally and scientifically. (He’s not the only one in the community who knows this, either. In response to Khalil’s death, the whole neighborhood turned up with food. “‘That’s the Garden for you,’ Momma says. ‘If folks can’t do anything else, they’ll cook.’”)

There’s also Ms. Rosalie, Khalil’s grandmother, who Starr describes as “an African queen.” She gives what Starr describes as “the most heartfelt hug I’ve ever gotten from somebody who isn’t related to me,” and listens to Starr’s hand while holding it. “It’s like my hand is telling her a story, and she’s responding.” What a gift for Starr to feel significant and to matter, and to feel this kind of emotional intimacy and invitation to be known – all deeper levels of attaching – from someone who clearly treats Starr’s heart with care.

When there’s rioting in the neighborhood, Ms. Jones from down the street calls Starr’s mother to check in. Mr. Charles next door offers his generator if needed. Mr. Lewis, the barber whose shop is beside Starr’s family’s grocery store, may be cranky but underneath his crusty façade he’s supportive and turns out to be a strong hero in a time of crisis. Other secondary characters who wrap Starr up in a blanket of cross-generational love and support include her attorney, Ms. Ofrah, and Mr. Reuben’s son, Tim.

Dr. Neufeld often assures parents, educators, and helping professionals that children really only need one caring adult in their lives to make a difference. Sometimes the child might not have a caring parent at home (this is seen, sadly, in the lives of some of the other characters in The Hate U Give). But even one teacher, neighbor, grandparent, or other adult can be the person for the child to attach deeply to. In her community, Starr has several such adults she’s given her heart to … and I haven’t even gotten to the integral adults from her family yet.

Uncle Carlos is one such familial light to Starr. While Starr’s father was in prison for three years, Uncle Carlos became a surrogate father to Starr. To Starr’s delight and comfort, Uncle Carlos has a routine of two kisses on the top of his niece’s head. “I snuggle closer to Uncle Carlos and hope it says everything I can’t,” she describes. He’s the adult Starr calls when in distress at school, well aware she’s faking “feminine problems,” but there for her all the same – and while supporting her, pointing her back to her mother or father – as all good members of the attachment village do.

It’s also Uncle Carlos, a police officer, who helps keep the perspective that not all cops are bad. When he’s put on leave due to an incident where he physically stands up for his niece and Starr worries about his job, he says, “‘But I love you more. You’re the one reason I even became a cop, baby girl. Because I love you and all those folks in the neighborhood.’”

Uncle Carlos’s actions speak as loud as his words – not only in the shared care of Starr, but in his willingness to shelter a young man, DeVante, from Garden Heights as he tries to flee the King Lords gang. By the end, Uncle Carlos treats DeVante like a son, which is evident in his reprimand: “Of course I’m mad. I’m actually pissed. But I’m happier that you’re safe.”

For DeVante, Uncle Carlos may well be the one and only adult who makes a difference in his life (and that difference is visible and remarkable later in the story, too). Starr, though, is further blessed with two amazing parents, who tell her repeatedly how they’ve “got your back.”

Starr’s dad, Big Mav, may be an ex-gangster who’s done time, but he’s a stand-up father – loving, devoted, protective. That’s one of the themes that I especially relish throughout this novel: behaviors don’t make the person – whether it’s Starr’s dad, Khalil, DeVante, or any of the other characters. Just as in life, people aren’t pigeonholed as either good or bad, black or white – they’re complex, multi-faceted people, and when you look underneath their behavior, or their skin color, all you can see are their beautiful hearts. Big Mav has a big one, and it has certainly won over Starr’s heart, as a result.

Throughout, Big Mav is shown as strong, caring, and in-the-lead. His upper arm is tattooed with Starr’s baby picture and these words underneath: “Something to live for, something to die for.” Mav reminds Starr, “I’ll do whatever I gotta do to protect you.”

He echoes this message to his son, Seven. When Seven considers passing an opportunity at college to stay in Garden Heights and look after his sisters (whose abusive step-father heads the King Lords gang), Mav tells him: “Look, you not responsible for your sisters … but I’m responsible for you. And I ain’t letting you pass up opportunities so you can do what two grown-ass people supposed to do.”

It’s because of her dad’s alpha-caring that Starr (and Seven, too) finds rest, which you can feel in her descriptions:

  • “I can tell it’s Daddy who’s rubbing my back without him even saying anything.”
  • “Daddy pulls me into a hug … I could stay like this all day – it’s one of the few places where [Officer] One-Fifteen doesn’t exist and where I can forget about talking to detectives.”
  • “Daddy being home means Momma won’t sit up all night, Sekani won’t flinch all the time, and Seven won’t have to be the man of the house. I’ll sleep better too.”
  • “The crying, the puking don’t mean anything anymore. My daddy’s got me.”

Similarly, Starr’s mom gives her daughter the same kind of unconditional, I’ve-got-your-back-support that feels to Starr “as good as any hug I’ve ever gotten.”

Her mom is also particularly savvy at honoring Starr’s emotions and making room for them:

“You’re grieving, okay? … Grieve Khalil all you want. Miss him, allow yourself to miss what could’ve been, let your feelings get out of whack. But like I told you, don’t stop living. All right?”

In another scene, when Starr’s frustration is ready to come pouring out, her mom coaxes her while rubbing Starr’s back: “Let it out, Munch … Let it out.” And in so doing, she helps her daughter shed some hefty emotion. Starr says, “I pull my polo over my mouth and scream until there aren’t any screams left in me.” After the emotion has been released, Starr’s mom says, “You feel better?” and then, “We’ll get through this. I promise,” ultimately helping pave the way for Starr’s tears to flow and adaptation to take place.

Starr’s mom also offers smart counsel on friendships – seasoned with practical, simple advice to write down a list of the good stuff and bad stuff. She also has nothing but wisdom to impart to Starr when it comes to bravery, while also revealing to Starr how well she knows her daughter:

“I’m proud of you, baby. You are so brave.”

That word. I hate it. “No, I’m not.” 

“Yeah, you are.” She pulls back and pushes a strand of hair from my face. I can’t explain the look in her eyes, but it knows me better than I know myself. It wraps me up and warms me from the inside out.

“Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,” she says. “It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”

I am so thankful that The Hate U Give steps away from the unspoken rule to “get the parents out of the way to tell the story” that so many children’s authors – especially authors of young-adult literature – adhere to. That’s just not always realistic, nor is a peer-to-peer culture what’s needed for young adults to successfully launch and flourish. That doesn’t mean it’s not Starr’s story, or that she doesn’t have friends – but that family, and the hierarchy found within the full attachment village – is integral to her life and thus to her coming-of-age story.

“It’s strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family,” says Starr as she describes her community in Garden Heights, “but it’s still a family. More than I realized until recently.”

That “dysfunctional” family keeps Starr’s heart from hardening up in spite of systemic racism, profound grief, and unjust circumstances … and keeps the reader’s heart open to hope, too – for a better, hate-free future for us all.

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