Start Them Young: Books for children

Christmas is the high holiday of the child year. It was especially so for me growing up in Bethlehem, Pa., which was founded on Christmas Eve 1740. Christmas loomed large in the Christmas City. The giant star of Bethlehem shining on South Mountain even eclipsed the smokestacks of the Bethlehem Steel plants. But a high point for our family was always the exquisite music at our parish church, Notre Dame of Bethlehem, and the violin and trumpet of our friends, the Bosch family. The Bosches were immigrants from Germany. Every Christmas Mrs. Bosch played “Silent Night” on her violin and sang the carol in German. I grew up hearing about the Christmas truce, how soldiers during World War I disobeyed orders and refused to fight and sang “Silent Night/Stille Nacht” across the trenches. I was just a little child, but the story stayed with me of these young soldiers, inspired by the Prince of Peace, reaching out across their fears in the dark of night to make peace in the middle of a war zone. It pierced my heart.

Yet in all my school work to follow, I rarely read a word about the Christmas truce. So I was delighted to read the new children’s book Truce (for ages 9 to 12), by the Newberry Honor medalist Jim Murphy. Integrating careful archival research, eyewitness accounts, photos and maps, Murphy offers a clear, concise and moving account of both World War I and the Christmas truce of 1914. Makeshift chapels were hastily assembled for religious services. Soldiers met on the battlefield, buried their dead, exchanged handshakes and gifts, beer and plum pudding. The truce was informally organized by the soldiers themselves, against the orders of their commanding officers. Winston Churchill had an intuition it could happen. A month before the truce, he asked, “What would happen if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike?” Corporal Adolf Hitler refused to take part. For children who may believe war is inevitable, whose entire lives have been lived in wartime during the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the long war on terror, Truce provides a useful reminder that peace is possible, that soldiers long for peace, and that we all have opportunities and responsibilities to, as one German soldier wrote, “keep the command ‘Peace on Earth.’”


Like Truce, all the books in this roundup offer an antimaterialist antidote to the consumer rush of the Christmas season. To readers of my children’s books, these themes will come as no surprise. Feeding the spirits and minds of the young (and young at heart) with inspiring and original ideas, these books all follow the beat of a different drummer boy or girl.

Claudette Colvin was only 15 years old when she stood up against racism. She was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger a year before Rosa Parks did the same. Rosa Parks was lauded by history and supported by the civil rights community; Claudette Colvin was largely left to fend for herself. Claudette Colvin (for grades 6 and up) was the lead witness in the court case that ended segregated busing. But she was darker skinned, of a lower economic class than the leaders of the civil rights movement and, later, an unwed teen mother who refused to straighten her hair in the style of the times. She was shunned by both the black and the white communities. Philip Hoose’s moving account weaves interviews, photos and other primary documents to rescue the history and recount the courage of this remarkable teen.

Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge (ages 9 to 12) is another excellent story of children and teens in the civil rights movement. “‘Don’t worry about your children. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail.’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told parents. ‘They are carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair.’” Filling the jails with children was a deliberate part of the strategic plan. Children were not the breadwinners, so they did not have to worry about losing their jobs. And jailing children was less socially acceptable, so it helped in the shaming and naming tactics of the campaign. The book’s focus on the Selma march is important, but perhaps too narrow. It omits “The Children’s Campaign” in Birmingham, familiar because of the iconic photos of children fire-hosed and beaten by the Birmingham police. Still, Partridge provides an important and empowering history of the Selma campaign.

The Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Rachel Isadora quite literally brings us different drummer boys and girls, as she sets The 12 Days of Christmas carol in Africa (ages 4 to 8). Isodora’s 12 drummers drumming play drums from Nigeria and Ghana in bright cut-paper collages that come alive against white space. The latest in her series of children’s classics recast in Africa (The Night Before Christmas, The Ugly Duckling and others), these books reimagine familiar tales with fresh eyes and serve as lush visual reminders of our common humanity across richly varied cultures.

Too Many Toys is a boisterous picture book by David Shannon (ages 4 to 8) with intriguing, antimaterialist observations. In scenes that will resonate with many families, Spencer and his mother engage in protracted and hilarious negotiations over which of Spencer’s too many toys will be given away. Spencer uses pouty eyes, nostalgia, lawyer tactics and a willingness to turn in Dad’s toys to try to protect his oversized collection, but in the end realizes that while many of the toys can go, the box must stay. In It’s Christmas, David, Shannon’s rascal David returns for easily recognizable holiday mischief: sneaking Christmas cookies, peeking at gifts, breaking ornaments. David fears his behavior may bring him nothing but coal. But repeating the formula familiar to readers of the “No, David” series, David instead finds forgiveness and unconditional love. Shannon’s engaging, child-like artwork and one-liners create laugh-out-loud favorites.

What do you get when you cross “Old McDonald Had a Farm” with a New York arbitration lawyer? Why Click, Clack, Moo and More, of course, a newly released compilation of three delightfully funny and subversive barnyard adventures by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin (ages 4 to 8). These stories turn Mother Goose animal stereotypes on their head, as the animals creatively stand up to repressive authority, Farmer Brown. Children love the ways the “little guys” prevail, while adults appreciate the fun and subtle civic and human rights subtexts. In the title book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, the animals want better working conditions, while Farmer Brown believes the animals should do as they are told. With the aid of a typewriter to convey their concerns and Duck as a neutral party to intercede, the animals go on strike—no milk, no eggs. Farmer Brown and young readers learn the power of organizing, non-violent resistance, compromise and speaking out, all while enjoying Betsy Lewin’s humorous, Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations, in pen with watercolor washes. In Giggle, Giggle, Quack, the second book in the compilation, Farmer Brown leaves them to go on a tropical vacation, until Duck leads the animals cleverly to get some at-home vacation perks of their own through writing, social organizing and knowing the importance of who sets the rules. In Dooby, Dooby, Moo, every living creature has an irrepressible creativity. Working together, they get their chances to shine at the County Fair’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” Click, Clack, Moo and More is a great value, as three picture books are combined here for essentially the price of one. Great primers on democracy, these books are smart and funny read-alouds, also suitable for beginning readers, that along the way invite children to think about power relations, the value of all living creatures and the importance of speaking out for the underdogs and underducks.

Antoinette Portis’s delightful Not a Box and Not a Stick picture books celebrate the power of children’s imaginations, turning everyday objects into flights of fancy. With plain covers, line illustrations and minimalist text suitable for read-alouds and beginning readers (babies to kindergarten), simplicity reigns, and children are encouraged to think and play outside the box.

The Newberry medalist Richard Peck invites us to take a new look at cantankerous Grandma Dowdel in the beautifully written A Season of Gifts(grades 5 and up, now in paperback). In a small Illinois town in the 1950s, Grandma Dowdel encourages her reputation as the town’s curmudgeon. Bob, son of the new minister, meets Grandma Dowdel when he is strung up naked in her outhouse by the town bullies. Over time the new neighbors come to appreciate Grandma Dowdel’s many gifts to the community, always deliberately disguised by her gruff appearance. When Bob comments that Mrs. Dowdel doesn’t have any presents under her Christmas tree, so she must not give gifts, his father challenges Bob to reconsider the generous gifts of herself she gives. “You don’t mean anything wrapped up with a ribbon, right?” answers Bob. “No,” his father replies, “nothing that small.” Folk wisdom and a keen sense of humor will please readers young and old.

Coleen Paratore offers an empowering social justice twist for middle grade and high school readers in The Wedding Planner’s Daughter series. After moving to beautiful Cape Cod, Willa Haversham rises above her concerns for her single mom and her outsider position as the perennial “new kid” through the transformative power of service. Bucking the popular kids at school, Willa posts inspirational quotes from literature on the community message board and organizes her classmates to save a local library, help needy children and address homelessness. Willa’s isolation and social outsider status will resonate with pre-teens and teens. But Willa draws on community, faith and books to mend the holes in her family. Parents and teachers will appreciate “Willa’s Picks,” accessible book reviews in each book.

Greg Mortenson offers two adaptations of his adult blockbuster, Three Cups of Tea, for younger readers: Listen to the Wind, a picture book for preschool to grade 3, and a young readers’ editionof Three Cups of Tea (grades 4 to 8). Mortenson’s real-life adventure began when he stumbled into a poor village in remote Pakistan after failing to scale K2. The people of Korphe opened their homes and hearts to Greg, nursing him back to health. Moved by their kindness, Mortenson vowed to return and help build a school for the children. Mortenson discovers his failure to summit K2 was a blessing, revealing his vocation of educating the most neglected peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The artist Susan Roth’s vivid collages bring Listen to the Wind to life, including fabric scraps and found objects that show the people’s tendency to recycle whatever materials they find. Each book benefits from photographs and a more compressed and focused re-telling than the original.

Almost Astronauts, by Tanya Lee Stone (grades 5 to 8), tells the stories of the 13 women pilots dubbed the Mercury 13, who fought to become part of the U.S. space program and who paved the way for the women who would eventually become astronauts 20 years later. Told with photos, interviews with the remaining women and news stories from the time, Stone’s account is a thought-provoking, accessible story that may inspire young readers to reach for the stars.

At the darkest time of the year, these books all spark a light of inspiration.

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David Smith
8 years 3 months ago
Material written primarily to convince people that one thing is right and another wrong is propaganda, and children are particularly susceptible to it.  If I had children, I'd *much* rather they stayed away from that sort of thing and read good literature, instead.


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