Invitations to Celebrations

Social educators have relied upon the traditions surrounding civic and religious holidays as avenues for exploring historical events, family traditions, famous people, and sources of faith. While many classroom calendars still contain the traditional holidays, celebrations representing increasingly diverse cultural and social identities have become an indispensable part of social education. The sampling of books reviewed below offers intriguing perspectives, engaging characters, and rich opportunities to enhance learning beyond our traditional holiday practices.

Celebrate New Beginnings

In many cultures the pealing of bells signals a time for new beginnings. January might be a good time to extend children's appreciation of poetry while celebrating holidays with a collection by Hopkins (1992), titled Ring Out Wild Bells: Poems about Holidays and Seasons. Pair this reliable compilation with an innovative collection of original poems by Adoff (1991), In for Winter, Out for Spring, and students will ask for more. Illustrated in Pinkney's energetic style, Adoff’s free verses hold a year’s worth of memories for one African-American family and bring new perspectives to the significance of seasonal changes for all readers.

Firecrackers announce the first day of Chinese New Year, a day that varies according to the position of the sun. The Chinese New Year appears on a Western calendar somewhere between January 21 and February 20. Readers can join six-year old Ernie Wan’s New Year celebration in New York City’s Chinatown as it is documented in Water’s (1990) photo-essay, Lion Dancer. The rituals and customs of this festival are richly described in the context of one family and their Chinese-American neighborhood. The Vietnamese New Year’s Celebration is greatly influenced by Chinese traditions and this holiday is discussed in Tet: The New Year (Tran, 1992). A useful companion piece for these titles is an informational book, Hoang Anh, A Vietnamese-American Boy (Hoyt-Goldsmith, 1992) with contemporary photographs by Migdale.

Other Voices of Renewal

The rhythmic tolling of a bell signifies another kind of beginning for all Americans who celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The rhyme and cadence of the King James Scriptures mingle with the rise and fall of Dr. King’s voice and the sound of marching in Livingston’s (1992) Let Freedom Ring. Readers will want to join in the refrain:
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring. Your work is our work, Martin Luther King.”
Byrd’s powerful illustrations tell the vivid story of the civil rights movement in the United States while the text sings a biographical ballad in memory of Dr. King.

A beautiful addition to the continuing chorus for equal rights is James Weldon Johnson’s (1993, 1921) Lift Every Voice and Sing. In 1900, Johnson, then a public school principal, and his younger brother J. Rosamond, a music teacher, wrote the words and music to sing at a celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday. Years later, as a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), James Weldon encouraged the singing of this song, and it came to be known as a Negro national anthem. Linocuts syncopate each verse of this text with striking images of the African-Americans’ struggle for freedom.

Celebrating Presidents: Echoes Across Time

To the nearly countless numbers of children’s books about Abraham Lincoln, teachers must add Kunhardt’s (1993) Honest Abe.
No sepia tones or grainy photos are allowed here! Eye-catching, living colors characterize the work of folk artist Malcah Zeldis and the straightforward text is sure to hold the interest of young readers. The inclusion of a brief chronology of Lincoln’s life and the text of the Gettysburg Address are an added “plus” in Honest Abe.
The “first voice” of the United States is given life in Giblin’s (1992) George Washington: A Picture Book Biography. Giblin’s work is a fascinating account of a boy, gentleman, farmer, slaveholder, soldier, husband, step-father, revolutionary, ex-slaveholder, and a president named George. An impressive gallery of tonal portraits chronicle Washington’s life. Interesting background information related to the legendary Washington and the commemorated Washington encourages further study.

Celebrating Traditions: Kwanzaa and Hanukkah

While celebrations of Thanksgiving provide a time to reflect upon the customs of harvest festivals, additional traditions of the harvest are celebrated in contemporary children’s literature. For example, a strong cultural bridge between the traditions of West African harvests and modern African-American family celebrations is found in Walter’s (1989) Have a Happy . . .. This Coretta Scott King Award winning novel is dedicated to the spirit of the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa. When ten-year old Chris is made privy to his family’s precarious financial situation, he begins to see why his December 25th birthday and this year’s Christmas celebration must be different from previous times. As Chris’s Uncle Ronald, a high school teacher, organizes the family for a celebration of Kwanzaa, Chris develops a personal understanding of the seven principles of this festival: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, purpose, creativity, and faith. This is an excellent choice for a class “read-aloud.”

Morninghouse’s (1992) Hahari Gani? What’s the News? illustrates the different days of Kwanzaa and the activities for the day. On “creativity” day, for example, the family attends a special program at an African-American museum. On the day that features “collective work and responsibility,” the young girls in the story take their “too smal#148; clothing to a shelter. This book provides a good explanation of Kwanzaa as well as an introduction to Swahili.

My First Kwanzaa Book (Chocolate, 1992) highlights the “Seven Principles of Kwanzaa” through a story addressed to younger children. The author conveys the spirit of the holiday by demonstrating customs and traditions like lighting candles, wearing African clothes, exchanging gifts, and sharing meals and stories with family or friends. For older children teachers might also consider Hoyt-Goldsmith’s (1993) Celebrating Kwanzaa.
Some of the best holiday stories are shared around the kitchen table and Grandma’s Latkes (Drucker, 1992) is a gem. When Molly is helping her Grandma with Hanukkah preparations she asks, “Why do we eat latkes during Hanukkah?” Grandma responds, “It’s because it reminds us of the oil.” Thus begins a vivid description of characters and a gripping retelling of the historical events which are remembered in the Hanukkah tradition. Grandma’s rendition unfolds as a beautifully natural conversation between grandparent and child. Chwast’s woodcuts help the reader’s eye move easily between the worlds of Grandma’s kitchen and the ancient battlefields of Judah. Drucker includes an endpage with Grandma’s recipe for latkes decorated with a woodcut of a potato blossom. The endpapers are even imprinted with potato blossoms. Perhaps they serve as a subtle reminder of each generation’s responsibility to plant the seeds of remembrance in the hearts of the young.

Jeremy’s Dreidel (Gellman, 1992) begins with the announcement of a Hanukkah workshop and Jeremy’s response as he signs up to make an unusual dreidel. While others make black and white or “recycled” dreidels, Jeremy puts braille dots on his project so that his blind father can “read” the words. Readers are introduced to the dreidel game through unique twists in the plot.

Jaffe’s In the Month of Kisley: A Story for Hanukkah (1992) uses a folkloric setting to bring Mendel, a poor peddler, and Feivel, a rich man, together through unusual circumstances. Mendel is unable to provide the supplies for latkes on Hanukkah. His three daughters stop as they pass by Feive#146;s house, content to just smell the aroma of the latkes. The rich man discovers the three girls and goes to the Rabbi, demanding “fair payment,” a ruble for each of the eight nights the children have stopped at his window. The clever rabbi solves the problem by sharing a bag of Hanukkah gelt; the sound of the coins pays for the smell of the latkes. The experience shames the merchant, opening the door for compassion as well as friendship between Feive#146;s and Mende#146;s families. The story extends the symbolism of Hanukkah across cultures and time.

Sharing Traditions

Prophets and angels converge in the friendship between a young Jewish boy named Michael and an elderly black man named Elijah. Rosen’s Elijah’s Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas (1992) is an account of real lives that cross religious traditions. Elijah, a barber by trade, woodcarver by the grace of God, shares his Christian beliefs through the stories he tells and the carvings he blesses with his prayers. When Elijah gives Michael a guardian angel that he has carved, Michael worries that the angel is a “graven image” forbidden in his home. After his family helps him understand Elijah’s gift, Michael feels free to give a gift in return — a menorah that he carved in Hebrew School. This is “a story, well-told” that shows friendship transcending religious and cultural distinctions.

In Say’s Tree of Cranes (1991), Yuletide traditions cross an ocean as a Japanese-American mother transplants the symbol of the evergreen from California to Japan. She intermingles the eternal message of the living tree adorned in glowing candles with that of the life-giving miracle of a thousand Japanese paper cranes to make her son’s first Christmas an unforgettable memory. This watercolor day of snowy peace and quiet is the perfect canvas upon which two cultures can express themselves in complementary hues.

Sometimes celebrations may cause even those who share traditions to overlook the perceptions and feelings of others. My Name is Maria Isabel by Ada (1993) tells the story surrounding the winter pageant at Maria’s new school. While the winter pageant is planned as a celebration of the many holiday traditions found in an urban school, Maria does not feel a part of the school or the pageant because of miscommunication. A class writing assignment offers Maria the perfect opportunity to clarify, in a suitably respectful way, her desire to be addressed by her given name, Maria Isabel Salazar Lopez instead of the anglicized “Mary.” The teacher finally realizes the importance of Maria’s request and complies. Ada makes a poignant plea for children across the United States who want desperately to “play a part in the pageant,” without forfeiting their linguistic and cultural identities.

As teachers plan for the new year, they may find that children’s literature can be used to incorporate new perspectives on important lives, times, and traditions. It may be useful to follow the guidance of the poet Byrd Baylor (1986) who never misses a chance to celebrate the happenings around her. Baylor declares in her book, I’m in Charge of Celebrations, “... last year I gave myself one hundred and eight celebrations—besides the ones that they close schools for” (1986). But, she is careful to note, she only chooses to celebrate the things she plans to “remember the rest of her life.” In much the same way that Baylor greets her special days, social educators can identify holidays that provide a means to explore those special times societies set aside for celebrating, learning, and remembering.

Although books have been categorized by level, it is important to remember that many books cross levels and the designations are only for the reader’s convenience.

P = Primary (grades 1,2,3)
I = Intermediate (grades 4,5,6)
A = Advanced (grades 7,8,9)

Ada, A. F. (1993). My name is Maria Isabel. New York: Atheneum. I
Adoff, A. (1991). In for winter, out for spring. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanvich. All Ages
Baylor, B. (1986). I’m in charge of celebrations. New York: Scribner’s. All Ages
Chocolate, D. N. (1992). My first Kwanzaa book. New York: Scholastic. P
Drucker, M. (1992). Grandma’s latkes. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. P
Gellman, E. (1992). Jeremy’s dreidel. Rockville, MD: KAR-BEN Copies, Inc. P
Giblin, J. C. (1992). George Washington: A picture book biography. New York: Scholastic. P/I
Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (1992). Hoang Anh, A Vietnamese-American boy. New York: Holiday House. I
Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (1993). Celebrating Kwanzaa. New York: Holiday House. I
Hopkins, L. B. (Ed.) (1992). Ring out wild bells: Poems about holidays and seasons. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. All Ages
Jaffe, N. (1992). In the month of Kislev: A story for Hanukkah. New York: Viking. P
Johnson, J. W. (1993, 1921). Lift every voice and sing. New York: Walker. All Ages
Kunhardt, E. (1993). Honest Abe. New York: Greenwillow. P
Livingston, M. C. (1992). Let freedom ring: A ballad of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holiday House. All Ages
Morninghouse, S. (1992). Habari Gani? What’s the news? A story of Kwanzaa. Seattle, WA: Open Hand Publishing. P
Rosen, M. (1992). Elijah’s angel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. I
Say, A. (1991). Tree of cranes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. P
Tran, Kim-Lar. (1992). Tet: The New Year. New York: Simon and Schuster. I
Waters, K. (1990). Lion dancer. New York: Scholastic. I
Walter, M. P. (1989). Have a happy . . .. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. I

About the Author
Robert H. Lombard, Associate Professor at Western Illinois University, teaches courses in elementary social studies and global education.

Meredith J. McGowan is a librarian and consultant in Tempe, AZ.

Karen L. Dunnagan teaches language arts at Western Illinois University.