Books to be Thankful For


Susan’s latest installment is all about Thanksgiving. Here are some books you can read with the kids in between bites of pumpkin pie:

As an agnostic, vegetarian liberal, it’s been a challenge to find books about the first Thanksgiving that I’m eager to read to my children.

To my kids, the holiday is about getting a break from school, visiting grandma, and eating lots of food. And, oh yeah, pilgrims – the guys in the boat with the silly hats.

To me, the holiday is complicated by more than just ruined diets and quarreling relatives. I’d really like to believe the kids’ books with buff Native Americans and clean, healthy pilgrims shaking hands, sharing food, and laughing. But I’ve read a little too much history for those pictures to be palatable. How do I explain to my kids that we’ll be celebrating Native American Heritage Day when their whole school is making paper Mayflowers?

After much searching, I finally found three books that strike a decent balance between the rosy American myth and the less savory reality. My kids can get a taste of the trials and triumphs of the pilgrims without needing to relearn history in high school.

Now, if I can just get them to eat the tofu turkey . . . .

The Story of Thanksgiving, by Nancy J. Skarmeas, illustrated by Stacy Venturi-Pickett. For the littlest listeners, this is a simple, straightforward version of the traditional Thanksgiving tale. The bad parts are glossed over – the pilgrims’ first, devastating winter is described simply as “Winter came. Icy winds blew. Snow fell. There was not much food to eat.” The cartoons are cheerful, in warm autumn colors. The modern-day family at the end is as multi-ethnic as the pilgrims’ feast.

Pilgrim’s First Thanksgiving, by Ann McGovern, illustrated by Elroy Freem. For slightly older children, this book fleshes out the basic story in an engaging, easy-to-understand, and informative way. The book doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of the voyage and first winter. “The Pilgrim children hated the food on the ship. But they had to eat it. There was nothing else.” The detailed descriptions of how the pilgrims had to build everything from scratch will fascinate kids who can just go to the store for anything. Kids may be especially interested to learn how much work children did! The book puts a strong emphasis on the help the pilgrims got from the Native Americans, especially Squanto, the only character in the book who is given a name.

Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast, by Kate Waters, photographs by Russ Kendall, in cooperation with Plimoth Plantation. Actors in historically-accurate costumes reenact the three-day feast from the alternating points of view of a Native American boy, Dancing Moccasins, and an English boy, Resolved White. The book follows the boys’ curiosity about each other and the different tasks each are given to prepare for the celebration. The contrasting clothes, cooking areas, and weapons will probably prompt many questions. My son insisted on reading this book three times in a row. Older children and grownups will also like the more in-depth information at the back of the book.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

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