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'Tis the Season to Break With Tradition: Reinvent Your Holiday Book List

by Jan Miller Burkins and Rachel Watkins
 | Dec 03, 2012
This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in November 2011.

The holidays present a host of challenges for teachers. Whether you are trying to preserve instructional time or simply break free of traditional holiday activities, here are ten titles that can help you reinvent your classroom’s holiday traditions. For each non-traditional holiday title below you will find a brief synopsis and an idea for connecting the book to the work of your classroom. What holiday season do you want in your classroom this year?

’Tis the Season to Notice

Written by Walter Dean Myers
Illustrated by Christopher Myers

In their latest father-son collaboration, New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers and Caldecott Honor artist Christopher Myers create a stunning journey through American History. The free-verse, non-fiction poetry and the epic illustrations offer homage to the diversity of people who have shaped America across its vast and complicated history. Offering resounding respect both for America and for those who have shaped it, Myers and Myers have found a way to say “Thank you” to all those we owe a debt of gratitude, from brick makers to presidents.

The cross-curricular connections for using this book are extensive. Our favorite, however, offers a variation on the traditional writing prompt: “I’m thankful for...” Instead, let children think about whom in history impacted the way they live their lives today. If they could say “thank you” in person, how would they say it and what would they say?

’Tis the Season to Break Stereotypes

Written by Nancy Bo Flood
Illustrated by Billy Whitehorne

The Navajo year begins in October, when summer and winter meet each other. In NAVAJO YEAR: WALK THROUGH MANY SEASONS, Coyote walks the reader through the thirteen months of the Navajo calendar. Illustrated by Billy Whitehorne, who lives in the Shonto-Black Mesa area of the Navajo Nation, this book captures the Navajo seasons with images and words. Presented in poetic form, with graceful and precise language, Flood manages an economy of words that makes the innate challenges of poetry appear easy. The book closes with a Navajo pronunciation guide produced by Berlyn Yazzie, Sr. The guide offers narrative descriptions as well as phonetic pronunciations of each of the months of the Navajo calendar. This book was carefully vetted, and offers a present-day counterpoint to stereotypes of Native Americans that abound around Thanksgiving.

You can use this book in math to make comparisons between our traditional calendar and the Navajo calendar. Use it in social studies to challenge students’ assumptions about Native Americans. NAVAJO YEAR is most valuable, perhaps, for the opportunities it offers to explore community, traditions, and special days across a calendar year. This book also lends itself to classroom events marking New Year celebrations.

’Tis the Season to Rethink What We Thought We Knew

Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan

Ask most students to describe a “pilgrim” and you will likely hear descriptions of women in bonnets and men in pointy hats with buckles on their shoes. You can help your children see Thanksgiving Day afresh (not to mention giving them a break from the common school traditions they endure over and over again) by showing them that “pilgrims” still exist.

THE ARRIVAL, Shaun Tan’s beautiful, wordless masterpiece is an award-winning book about an immigrant’s experience that will broaden your students’ definition of the word pilgrim, and offer new depth to what it means to be thankful. A beautifully complex text, THE ARRIVAL offers something for students of all ages. The wordless images will engage younger students, while older students can work through Tan’s invented alphabet, which allows readers to experience the same confusion immigrants experience as they face a new language in a foreign land.

The potential student responses to this book are many, but this book should probably be left to work its magic without extensive teacher direction. If anything, a simple, post-discussion writing prompt like, “I used to think..., but now I think....” can lend some consistency to student responses that could form a class poem or book.

’Tis the Season of Observing

Written by by Fawzia Gilani-Williams
Illustrated by Prioiti Roy

While teaching your students about Eid, the celebration that takes place after the fast of Ramadan, NABEEL’S NEW PANTS will also show your students the ways that family holiday preparations are universal. From buying special gifts for family to preparing holiday food, this sweet tale carries a traditional note that any child can recognize, regardless of family traditions.

Roy’s gouache, watercolor, and ink illustrations help create a cheerful story of a mishap that leaves Nabeel with a most unusual pair of pants for Eid morning. This is a lovely and truly multicultural book: the author and illustrator are from India, the story is Turkish, and the glossary in the front of the book explains the Arabic terms used throughout.

Let your students use this book to observe the commonalities in holiday traditions. Students may discover that, even if cultural traditions vary, most holidays share the same, core elements, such as family reunions, giving, and anticipation.

’Tis the Season of Peace (In and Out)

Written and illustrated by Todd Parr

Author/illustrator Todd Parr’s books present straightforward, accessible illustrations to teach sophisticated ideas, such as tolerance and love. While people celebrate certain seasons of peace in particular, we can think about the importance of peace throughout the year.

Parr lends concrete examples to this complex word, defining peace as multi-faceted. His illustrations show a range of peaceful moments, from caring for the earth to learning a new language. Use THE PEACE BOOK in your classroom to broaden classroom conversations beyond holiday calendar limitations.

For a deep discussion that can verbally prime comparably deep written responses, ask your students to think about whether peace is on the inside of them or on the outside. For further analysis, as what they think about this distinction, how inner and outer peace are connected, and whether it matters. You can even go page-by-page through THE PEACE BOOK and think about whether each illustration shows peace within or peace without.

’Tis the Season for Enough to be Plenty

Written by Eric A. Kimmel
Illustrated by Katya Krenina

Spiders at Christmas? Children may wonder if you are talking about Christmas or Halloween. This story introduces a culturally significant holiday tradition that may be unknown to many of your students. In the Ukraine, spiders and their webs represent good luck. Many Ukrainians decorate their Christmas trees with spiders and webs.

THE SPIDER’S GIFT is a retelling of this tradition and its spider legend. This book is perfect considering the economic difficulties many will face this holiday season. The opening line will pull your students in as they learn that Katrusya’s family must figure out ways to turn little into plenty.

Let this story launch a campaign of holiday decorations or projects that appreciate nature and illustrate that something doesn’t have to be expensive to be beautiful. Paired with conversations about the dimensions of holiday traditions that aren’t sold in stores, students might find that getting down to earth, literally and figuratively, may introduce a new simplicity to a typically frenzied season.

‘Tis the Season of Our Own Celebrations

Written by Angela Shelf Medearis
Illustrated by Daniel Minter

SEVEN SPOOLS OF THREAD explains, in classic folktale form, the origin of Kente cloth as well as the seven Kwanzaa principles. Use this title to give your students an overview of this holiday, established in 1966. Minter’s bold, brilliant linocuts convey the strong family ties in a Ghanaian village that serves as the setting for this tale of seven constantly quarreling brothers. With a glossary, pronunciation guide, and craft activity section, this book supports numerous opportunities for exploring and understanding Kwanzaa.

The SEVEN SPOOLS OF THREAD also invites an exploration of all kinds of holiday traditions. You can support discussion and writing by asking a few of the following questions: What did the creators of Kwanzaa have to consider as they developed this holiday? What does Kwanzaa include that was missing from other holidays? What is the same about Kwanzaa and other holidays? What makes the particular holidays that students observe meaningful for them? What makes a holiday your own?

‘Tis the Season to Start Something New

Written and illustrated by Mari Takabayashi

Brilliant illustrations accompany the authentic text that sometimes reads like a journal and other times like a caption. For each month, Takabayashi offers a two-page spread that chronicles one year in the life of Mimiko, a seven-year-old school girl who lives in Japan.

With special emphasis on Mimoko’s holiday observances and other family traditions, I LIVE IN TOKYO offers students a new perspective on family celebrations. Takabayashi’s illustrations are intricate, while the ideas are simple but rich. The book ends with a glossary of Japanese terms. I LOVE TOKYO is the perfect book for welcoming in the New Year. Each page offers its own writing prompt, such as favorite foods or hometown landscape. Combined, these prompts offer an authentic mentor text for an illustrated journal across a year.

In January, share this book with students and let them begin their own monthly journals. Each month they can add a two-page spread. When school ends for the summer, they will have enough of an investment in their journals to continue writing during the break. Perhaps you will be greeted next fall with last-year’s student’s returning to share their summer writing with you.

Jan Miller Burkins is the founder of Jan Miller Burkins Consulting and, and is an author of PREVENTING MISGUIDED READING: NEW STRATEGIES FOR GUIDED READING TEACHERS (IRA, 2010).

Rachel Watkins is the Assistant Editor of and the Children’s Book Specialist at Avid Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Athens, Georgia.

© 2012 Jan Miller Burkins & Rachel Watkins. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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