As Thanksgiving approaches, you may be thinking about stuffing, pie, and football, but I’ve got Rivka on my mind. Rivka is the heroine of Rivka’s First Thanksgiving, a picture book about an immigrant girl on the Lower East Side who persuades her family’s rebbe that the Jews should be allowed to celebrate Thanksgiving. The story ends with Rivka’s family hosting the rebbe and his wife at a traditional feast, complete with turkey roasted by Rivka’s Bubbeh, “sweet potatoes, salads, coleslaw, green beans, challah, and mandel-brodt.” Yum.
Wait a minute. You’ve never heard of Rivka? What’s wrong with you?
Ah, I know your problem. You have not been blessed with the one-woman Jewish bookmobile otherwise known as my mother-in-law. From Mara’s first lift-the-flap Noah’s ark miniature board book, to Eva’s complete set of American Girl Rebecca books, my mother-in-law has gifted my daughters with what may be the world’s largest collection of juvenile literary Judaica east of Jerusalem. We’ve got Bible books (see Noah), we’ve got immigrant books (see Rivka and Rebecca), but most of all we’ve got holiday books.
Did you know there were Purim books? Try Queen Esther the Morning Star. Sukkot? Hillel Builds a House. And you haven’t lived until you’ve read Hanukkah, It’s Hanukkah!, The Eight Nights of Chanukkah, A Blue’s Clues Chanukah, and that renegade bestseller, Hanukkah Cat, 100,000 times over the course of eight nights. Which is why the Hanukkah books live in the closet eleven months of the year. Who could take that degree of pleasure 365 days straight?
My kids, that’s who. Which would make my mother-law proud. For surely a significant goal of the holiday book is to generate attachment to holidays, and, by extension, to the cultural, national, and religious traditions they — holidays and books alike — represent. Could we call the holiday book one of our more powerful forms of kiddie propaganda, inculcating our children into the beliefs we hope they will embrace? I think perhaps we could.
Let’s not forget that contemporary Christmas, as we know it, was largely created by Clement Moore and Charles Dickens. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, introduced the modern version of Santa Claus and helped transform Christmas in early 19th-century New York from drunken devilry to family frolic. A Christmas Carol gave us Christmases Past, Present, and Future, “God bless us every one,” and Jim Carrey. Need I say more?
How about Thanksgiving? The story of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins originated in a Longfellow poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish (you remember, it’s kind of a Cyrano de Bergerac thing: Miles sent John to ask Priscilla if she would marry him, but Priscilla and John ended up living happily ever after). You want Squanto? An Amazon search brings up 1,702 results, most of which can be found in second grade classrooms across America.
Further proof of the propaganda? My own anxious bigotry. In the small Midwestern town where we spent the first part of my daughters’ childhoods, approximately half the books in our library’s children’s section were Christmas books — or at least so it seemed, as Mara and Eva pulled out Christmas book after Christmas book, and I said “Nope, we don’t read Christmas books,” and returned them to the shelf, time and time again. Arthur, the Berenstain Bears, Franklin, Eloise: all their favorite characters had Christmas books which their cruel mother refused to read. Why? Because there was more than enough Christmas surrounding (and potentially enticing) my little Jewish girls, but also because I had no interest.
Let’s face it: the occasional beautifully-illustrated, poignantly-told tale aside, the vast majority of holiday books are tedious retreads of history and tradition, cutesy celebrations of consumerism, or one more opportunity to promote the brand (see Arthur, the Berenstain Bears, Franklin, and Eloise, who apparently has started her own Christmas mini-industry, what with Eloise Decorates for Christmas, Eloise’s Christmas Trinkles [whatever they are], and Merry Christmas, Eloise! A Lift-the-Flap Book). In other words, holiday books epitomize all that is wrong with the children’s book industry today. Yet our children love them. Go figure.
Hold on. This is becoming insufferably depressing. Really, I’m not such a curmudgeon as all that. I love sweet potatoes and dreidels and lighting the menorah. My annual Hanukkah party is to die for, and now that my children can read, I’m fine with them reading Christmas books on their own (just like I let them chew gum, so long as they are out of my sight).
There are even a few holiday books I love. Sammy Spider for one. Sammy is the hero of Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah, Sammy Spider’s First Passover, Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah, and so on, all the way to Sammy Spider’s First Tu B’Shevat (which my husband calls milking the brand for all it’s worth), with the noteworthy omission of Sammy’s first Yom Kippur. The Sammy books take the didacticism of children’s literature to an extreme: not only does Sammy learn about the Jewish holidays from observing Josh Shapiro, the boy of the house where he lives, but each book also teaches numbers, colors, letters, seasons, or some other cornerstone of the preschool curriculum. However, the Sammy books are redeemed, at least for me, by the comforting simplicity of their narrative repetition and the vibrancy of their brightly-colored collage illustrations — that is, by the things that can be wonderful about children’s books.
My other favorite is Mindy. When Mindy Saved Hanukkah melds the holiday genre with the little people genre (you know: Gulliver’s Travels, The Littles, The Borrowers, Mistress Masham’s Repose) and the “You go, girl!” genre. Mindy Klein is a little person who lives with her family behind the walls of the Eldridge Street Synagogue (we’ve been there! it’s fabulous!) where she battles the evil cat Antiochus to acquire a candle for her family’s holiday celebration. With history as allegory, ingenious illustrations, and bits of wit for grownups (the Pequeños from Shearith Israel, the Littles from Temple Emanu-El, and the Katans from Jerusalem come to the Kleins’ Hanukkah party), When Mindy Saved Hanukkah is one of the few holiday books I don’t need to be begged to read aloud.
So maybe my mother-in-law and my kids are on to something. Most of us need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, read a lot of crap books to find a gem, and endure endless Pilgrims and latkes to get to Sammy and Mindy, but our quests are eventually rewarded.
Happy holiday reading!
For more on holiday reading and Christmas book suggestions, see Libby Gruner’s column: Children’s Lit Book Group.