Holiday Read Alouds, Part 2: Tales to Warm the Heart

Having taken my own advice about waiting until the perfect “tipping point” to introduce holiday books into the classroom, I now find myself (as I do almost every year) in a slight frenzy.  You see, the size of the stack of books I was hoping to share with my class before vacation doesn’t quite match up with the number of days we have left.  I suppose that’s not the worst problem in the world to have – it does flip the “countdown” feeling in my head to something positive – but I’m surprised by how important certain books feel to me, almost like I wouldn’t be ready for the holidays if I didn’t get a chance to read them.  I suppose the traditions we create within classrooms can become almost as strong and personal as the traditions we create within our families, those non-negotiable ceremonies that make the holidays so special.

Today I’ll focus on two books that I would consider my favorite “heartwarmers.”  I’ll make time later in the week for some books that are just pure fun.

1st edition

1st edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) – I must admit that I have an ulterior motive in reading this book to my class: it allows me to show the video of the Jim Henson adaptation of this story on the last day before break.  That movie remains one of my favorite childhood Christmas specials.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was as connected to the book as a child as I was to the movie, but I’ve rediscovered the book as an adult.  Essentially it is a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” with animal characters.  Emmet and his Ma are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts.  A Christmas Eve talent show seems to offer a perfect opportunity to use their musical talents to win some money and buy a “real, store-bought” gift for one another.  They secretly prepare to enter with different acts, but each finds that their act will require a sacrifice: Emmet will have to put a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a bass for his jug-band, and Ma will have to sell Emmet’s toolbox to get the fabric for her costume.  Will their sacrifices pay off in the end?  I learned after my first year of reading this story to children that it’s best to stop right before the talent show if you’re also going to show them the movie, creating some sense of suspense.  Children’s expectations for “happy endings” in stories like this are so strong that the debate is usually about which one of the characters will win the show, not whether they’ll win at all; the actual ending of the story is usually very surprising to them.  The Hobans are familiar to many children from the other books they wrote together, particularly A Bargain for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances, and the gentle style of the story and pictures in this book is

Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas

Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (Photo credit: ulalume)

similar to their other works.  I find the low-key, heartwarming tone of both the book and movie to be a nice counterbalance to the more frenetic pace of some holiday specials.  This book is sadly out of print, but you can find it in libraries or used book stores. It’s worth hunting down!  The Jim Henson special is available on DVD, and you can find extensive informationabout the making of the film on the Muppet wiki.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story (written by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Chris K. Soentpiet) – Cynthia Rylant is truly a remarkable author for many reasons, not least of which is her ability to write in such completely different genres.  Children who know her name from series such as Henry and Mudge or Cobble Street Cousins might be surprised to hear that she also wrote this lovely, touching picture book.  The story takes place in a poor village in Appalachia.  Many years ago, a rich man had a car accident in the hills and was well-cared for by the people who found him.  When he had healed, his caretakers refused to accept any money from him, and he left feeling that he owed a debt to the community.  Every year he rides through the towns in the hills on a train, throwing packages wrapped in silver paper to the children who run alongside.  A little boy named Frankie waits in the cold for the train, hoping every year for a toy doctor kit.  One year his package has a cowboy holster and warm socks; another year it contains a toy police car and mittens.  As an adult, he looks back on those precious packages and makes a decision about a debt of his own that he feels he owes.  The writing in this story is poetic in a subtle way, and I absolutely love the detailed illustrations.  There are some really interesting conversations to be had with children about what it means to owe someone a debt and how the gifts we give can affect others.  If you’re reading this aloud, prepare yourself for the last page, though – I always have to blink back a few tears on this one.

Now, a disclaimer.  This book is actually my runner up for Favorite Tearjerker.  My real Favorite Tearjerker is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (written by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch); however, since I can’t read that book (aloud or to myself) without actually bursting into tears, I have officially removed it from the list of read alouds so I do not scar my children emotionally.  I can usually make it through Silver Packages with just a lump in my throat, so it’s a safer choice.  Do yourself a favor and read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey … but if you’re anything like me, do it in a corner by yourself with a box of tissues nearby.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

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Holiday Read Alouds, Part 1: Lighting the Candles

In the classroom, I feel that each holiday comes with its own tipping point, its own ticking clock.  Acknowledge the holiday too early and you risk spinning the whole class into chaos for days (joyful chaos, but still).  Fail to acknowledge the holiday and the underground excitement will eventually explode.  Finding that tipping point is a careful operation.  October 30 – business as usual.  October 31 – Halloween math, Halloween read alouds, Halloween poetry …

When it comes to the winter holiday season, that tipping point is even more ticklish.  I find that it is right around this time, a week or two into December, when the tide becomes too strong to deny.  Reports on last night’s Hanukkah gifts, discussions of advent calendars, and the humming …oh, the humming.  “Jingle Bells.”  “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  It’s official: the holidays are coming.

My very favorite way to (calmly) acknowledge the coming of the season is through read alouds.  I’ll be kicking off my yearly Holiday Read Alouds this week in the classroom and sharing some of the ones I love in my next few blog posts.  There’s always room on the read aloud schedule for a few more, so feel free to share some of your favorites through the comments section.

With Hanukkah beginning this past weekend, I’ll be starting this year with one of my favorite picture books about the holiday: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (written by Eric A. Kimmel, pictures by Trina Schart Hyman).  Hershel is a traveler who is glad to find a friendly village for the first night of Hanukkah, but the villagers reveal that they are plagued by goblins that hate Hanukkah and stop them from celebrating.  Hershel volunteers to spend each night of Hanukkah in the synagogue to see if he can outwit a series of goblins.  In order to banish the goblins forever, he’ll have to arrange for the king of the goblins himself to light the Hanukkah candles on the last night of the holiday.

The 1996 Hanukkah USA 32 cents stamp

The 1996 Hanukkah USA 32 cents stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is an absolutely lovely way to bring this holiday to life for children.  The story is genuinely exciting, and Hanukkah traditions are woven into the narrative in a way that allows children who celebrate this holiday to share their own experiences.  The overall message is a positive spin on a traditional trickster tale: Hershel overcomes the goblins by using his wits and his bravery.  The cast of goblins offers lots of opportunities for silly, dramatic voices.  For me, perhaps the most appealing part of the book is the illustrations.  I’ve always loved Trina Schart Hyman’s work – she manages to straddle the line between cartoonish personality and detailed realism, a style I find particularly effective in her folk tales and fairy tales.  Here the goblins are dramatic but silly, and the king of the goblins is scary without being gory or graphic.  Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins makes a wonderful addition to any holiday library, whether you celebrate Hanukkah in your home or not.  Stay tuned next week for more holiday picks, and happy reading!

If You Like Winnie the Pooh, Then You’ll Love …

Winnie the Pooh Story

Winnie the Pooh Story (Photo credit: sanctumsolitude)

Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (written by A.A. Milne, illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard) fall into the category of Genuine Children’s Classics.  The characters, the incidents, even some of the phrases (“Oh, bother”) have seeped into our common culture.  Unfortunately, that cultural seepage means that, when I pull out Winnie the Pooh to read to my class, there are sometimes groans and mutterings about “baby books.”  You see, many children have spent their childhood surrounded by the Winnie the Pooh empire – with Pooh characters popping up everywhere from cartoons to diaper decorations – without ever experiencing the stories themselves.

Once children actually read the stories, they’re almost always amazed at how truly funny they are (“in a way little kids wouldn’t understand,” I usually explain).  The use of language, the situations, and the tone are all much more appealing to children over the age of nine than the younger children who usually know the characters.

If you have managed to sneak the original Pooh stories past an older child’s defenses and are looking for a more modern follow-up, or if you’d like a way to lead up to those classics, my recommendation is the similarly funny Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic (written by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky).  Its self-contained but interconnected stories (with titles like “The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine” and “The Serious Problem of Plastic-ness”) and sweet illustrations make it a perfect read-aloud, either for a class or a family at bedtime.

There are a few parallels between the two books that make me wonder if Jenkins was specifically thinking of the Pooh stories.  In one story Lumphy the buffalo loses “something important” from his body in a way that would be familiar to Eeyore.  In another chapter, the characters search for a perfect birthday present, much like Pooh’s gift to Eeyore of a Useful Pot to Put Things In (and Piglet’s thoughtful Thing to Put in a Useful Pot).  There are some very Milne-like “hums” throughout the story that brought to mind both the Pooh stories and Milne’s poetry.  Both authors also share a love of language (see for example StingRay’s explanation of the term for whispering suggestions in someone’s ear: “Oooooh!  Submarine messages! … Why didn’t I think of them before?”).

More than those specific parallels, I was struck in these stories by a similar affection for the characters.  Both of these books are about the secret lives of toys, but they’re also about people children know or will come to know.  Almost everyone has an Eeyore or an Owl in their lives, and we can all hope for affection from a friend like Piglet.  In much the same way, the characters in Toys Go Out are vulnerable and appealing in a way that makes them instantly connectable for children.  StingRay’s need to know everything (and willingness to make up facts when she doesn’t), Lumphy’s tough gruffness, and Plastic’s general bounciness are all characteristics that children can usually recognize in others … or in themselves.

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwi...

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwise from bottom left: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re looking for books to start (or hopefully continue) a family read-aloud routine, I can’t make a better recommendation than these two.  They’re cozy, connectable, and very, very funny.  And if you’re an adult fan of Winnie the Pooh, I also recommend you acquaint yourself with this new generation of literary friends.  Happy reading!

For more background about these two books, their authors, and their illustrators, you might check out:

Emily Jenkins’ website, with information about her books, teacher resources, and a particularly lovely autobiographical essay

Paul O. Zelinsky’s website, featuring lots of information about this Caldecott-honored artist and his work

– There are a multitude of official and unofficial sites about Pooh Bear, but the site of Peter Dennis, connected to his audio books of Milne’s work, is particularly informative and well-constructed.

– Amazon.com’s biographical page about A.A. Milne also gives some background about the man and his work.