Oskar and the Eight Blessings is a wonderful story about the kindness of strangers during the darkest of times. On the 7th day of Hanukkah, which also coincided with Christmas Eve, Oskar arrives in New York City. He is a refugee who escaped the horrors of Nazi Europe. Oskar carries with him an address and an outdated photo of his Aunt Esther. He makes his way from lower Manhattan to the north of the city encountering many acts of kindness and generosity from strangers along the way.
The illustrations, by Mark Siegel, are beautiful, organized into panels reminiscent of a comic book. They contribute to the pace of the story and bring the action to life.
His journey reminds him of his father’s words, “People can be good.” Just then he sees his Aunt Esther. They share a touching reunion filled with sadness and grief, but also a glimmer of hope.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings is a touching story that takes place during a horrendous time in history. It teaches the reader that even in the darkest times people can help lift one another up. This book is perfect for kids ages 4-8.
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Patricia Polacco is a phenomenal author. Her children’s picture books address important issues in a sophisticated way. She crafts strong characters who face real-life problems with courage and integrity. The Trees of the Dancing Goats is no exception.
Based on a true childhood memory, Patricia Polacco wrote the story of young Trisha and her family preparing for the eight days of Hanukkah. Everyone is hard at work. Her cherished Babushka makes the candles and potato latkes. Her Grampa is hidden away carving marvelous animals as presents for the kids.
Trisha’s mother sends her to the Kremmels’ house for cornmeal and she discovers that the family is quite ill. She learns that scarlet fever is affecting many of the families in the neighborhood. Her own family is one of the few not impacted by the epidemic. They try to continue preparing for the holidays as planned, but it just doesn’t feel right while so many of their friends and neighbors are unwell.
Thinking about the meaning of Hanukkah and the miracle of the light that it celebrates, Trisha’s family decides to make the holidays special for their neighbors as well. Even if they celebrate different ones.
They cut down parts of trees to make small Christmas trees and decorate them with their own wooden carvings. Though Trisha is initially sad that she will not be able to enjoy the beautifully carved figures her Grampa made, she knows it’s the right thing to do. They pack baskets with chickens and latkes and her Babushka even puts one homemade Hanukkah candle in each and they deliver them to their ailing neighbors.
The Trees of the Dancing Goats is a fantastic picture book with a powerful message. It teaches the importance of friendship and making personal sacrifices for the happiness of others. It also recognizes one commonality between Hanukkah and Christmas, the coming together of friends and families to celebrate their traditions and histories.
In a classroom setting, this would be a wonderful mentor text for a memoir writing unit.
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The Santa Trap by Jonathan Emmett is a hilarious picture book that is for those less enthusiastic about the holidays. Bradley Bartleby is an ungrateful, spoiled brat. He gets everything he wants because everyone around him, including his parents, is scared of him.
Every year for Christmas Bradley gets mountains of toys and gifts, but from Santa he only gets a pair of new socks. Fed up with Santa, Bradley sets up the ultimate Santa trap. It takes him an entire year to devise the various booby traps that will surely capture Saint Nick. From dynamite to guillotines, Bradley plans on taking all of Santa’s gifts for himself.
The Santa Trap is the Home Alone of picture books, where the main character plays the role of the Sticky Bandits and Santa is Kevin. This is the perfect picture book for kids ages 7-10.
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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is another funny Christmas-themed picture book. The Herdmans were the worst kids in the history of the world. Their favorite pastimes are things most kids are warned against from a very young age, striking matches, lying and stealing. Just take a moment to look at the illustration below, it speaks for itself!
One day, the six Herdman children show up at Sunday school and somehow they take over the annual Christmas pageant. They take all the main roles for themselves and they question the most important parts of the story. For example, instead of the Wise Men bringing gifts of oils, they want to bring pizza.
When it’s time for the pageant, everyone turns up to see the Herdman’s interpretation of the birth of the baby Jesus and the visitation of the Three Wise Men. In the end, their reenactment has its own unique spin, with small details that add an extra layer of humanity and realism to the very well-known scenes.
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Kwanzaa is the Swahili word meaning the first fruits of the harvest. Kwanzaa is an African American celebration that takes place at the end of each year to honor the coming together of families. It’s a time of year to celebrate community, history and it marks the beginning of a new planting season. Kwanzaa begins December 26 and lasts for 7 nights, finishing on January 1 with a large celebration.
My First Kwanzaa by Karen Katz is the perfect picture book for young ones to learn about Kwanzaa. It teaches of the seven days of Kwanzaa and the principle that is the focus of each day, from working together to unity. The author includes a real-life example of each that young readers can relate to.
My First Kwanzaa is a terrific book to introduce a new or different culture. The illustrations are colorful and captivating. It is perfect for kids ages 3-6.
My First Kwanzaa Book by Deobrah Newton Chocolate is another wonderful picture book that introduces Kwanzaa. The text is simple and the illustrations are large and colorful, adding details that complement the words. Together, they emphasize the importance of family and community during this time of year. My First Kwanzaa Book features a glossary of common symbols and words associated with Kwanzaa.
Click here to purchase a copy of Karen Katz’s My First Kwanzaa (affiliate link).
Click here to purchase a copy of Deborah Newton Chocolate’s My First Kwanzaa Book (affiliate link).
The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold* is a fantastic picture book to get kids into the Christmas spirit. Instead of a child declaring that he/she no longer believes in Santa, this story begins with Santa declaring that he no longer believes in one little boy named Harold. Santa is sulking. He accuses Mrs. Claus of being in on the lie, insisting that Harold is a real person. His evidence? Harold’s letters to Santa are too neat and there is no way that Harold could life the heavy milk carton that is always left for Santa in Harold’s house all by himself. Santa then does what kids typically do, he goes around and asks everyone what they think. From the elves to the reindeer, Santa wants the 411 on Harold. His conspiracy theory goes so far, he accuses Harold’s parents of creating the myth of Harold so that they can keep all of his presents for themselves!
At the same time Harold is questioning the existence of Santa! He decides he needs proof, so on Christmas Eve he hides behind the armchair in his living room and waits for Santa.
It’s hard to tell who is more excited to verify the existence of the other. The father spitting out his coffee in the background of this illustration is just one more hilarious detail. The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold is an awesome book about believing. It’s great for kids ages 5-9.
*I received a complimentary copy of The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold in exchange for my honest review.
Click here to purchase a copy of The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold (affiliate link).
December’s Gift by Ashley Smith-Santos and Stasie Bitton is a wonderful interfaith picture book that shares the stories of Chanukah and Christmas in a simple, yet beautiful way. The main character is a young girl named Clara who spends the first night of Chanukah with her grandmother Bubbe making latkes together. She asks her grandmother to tell her the story of Chanukah and the magical oil. This is part of her wonderful family tradition.
Then, Clara and her family visit her Grammy and Grandpa to celebrate Christmas. Together, they bake delicious sugar cookies. Clara asks her Grammy to tell her the story of Christmas and the magical star. This is another part of her family tradition.
Clara learns that each holiday is a time to come together with family and celebrate an important miracle. She too dreams of passing on the traditions to her own family one day.
December’s Gift is a lovely story as it shows the experience of a child growing up in an interfaith household. It promotes an understanding of different religions and cultures. Not to mention highlighting the importance of family and tradition. December’s Gift is a great picture book for kids 6 years old and up.
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With winter break rapidly approaching, what picture books are you reading in your classrooms to explore different holidays or even the winter season?
Some of my personal favorites include: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, a story about a young boy who gets to take a train trip along with other children to visit the North Pole. This is a story of imagination and excitement with delightful illustrations.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is written in rhymed verse and tells the story of the Grinch who tries to keep Christmas from coming to Whoville.
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs is a picture book without words. Students will love exploring the illustrations to follow the story. A great activity might be to have students work together to write a class version of The Snowman with words to accompany the illustrations.
A friend recommends Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel. This story is about a small town and the goblins that ruin Hanukkah every year. When Hershel arrives he begins tricking the goblins into lighting the candles of the menorah, thus breaking the town’s curse. Though this book is infused with humor, it explores the important theme of freedom to practice one’s own religion.