Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Reflection

The title of this post comes from a picture book by Eve Bunting, with illustrations by Beth Peck. Back when I was teaching elementary school, I always read this book aloud to the students around Thanksgiving. The book tells the contemporary story of a family from an unnamed Caribbean island who flee their home by night to escape political persecution at the hands of government soldiers. They board a boat and endure many hardships on a journey that ends with a landing in Florida on Thanksgiving Day. Once safe on land, they spend their first day in America celebrating their freedom and safety with relatives on shore.

I love this book for many reasons, Bunting's spare, but vivid prose, Peck's wonderful crayon drawings, the joyous ending, but especially because it resonates so beautifully with the experiences of those other Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving - escaping persecution to find freedom and safety in a faraway new land. I would usually back up this reading with a reading of Ann McGovern's classic, If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620, illustrated by Ann Devito.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around this year as the meaning of the recent election begins to be revealed. I find myself thinking about how grateful I am for the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up the American family. This diversity has enriched my life in so many ways, profound and trivial, and I hope that we all can take a moment to reflect on this during this year's Thanksgiving celebration, as it becomes increasingly apparent that not all Americans share in a joyous view of diversity.

Last week in the Food section of the newspaper, the New York Times took a look at the many ways Americans celebrate this holiday. Each of the many cultures that make up the American quilt have contributed foods and traditions that recall home at the same time they celebrate the gifts that life in America has brought. It was compelling to read about these many diverse cultures, all putting their own stamp on the celebration, but all celebrating America as Americans.

As a parent and teacher, wanting to share this sense of "many cultures, one country" with my children, grandchildren, and students, I naturally turn to read-alouds and picture books. Fortunately there are many good books to choose from. In addition to the two mentioned above I recommend the following:

Squanto's Journey, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed.

The Thanksgiving story told from the point of view of the Native American whose actions helped save the Plymouth Colony. An historically accurate, detailed account.

Duck for Turkey Day, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Miller

A young Vietnamese girl worries what her teacher and classmates will think because her parents insist that duck is tastier than turkey and insist on serving it for Thanksgiving.

Molly's Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy.

Recent immigrant Molly helps her classmates learn that it takes all kinds of Pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving. Powerful, classic story with new illustrations.

Gracias, The Thanksgiving Turkey, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When Miguel's father sends home a live turkey from his job on the road driving a truck, Miguel names the bird Gracias and walks him around the neighborhood on a leash. He then must fret about the bird's fate when his father gets home.

Want more? Here is an online resource for multicultural Thanksgiving Day books.

Happy Thanksgiving. May the holiday bring you together with family and friends and may we all take a moment to give thanks for the diversity that makes us who we are. And also, perhaps, to remember that for many of us, some young ancestor from a far away land likely looked up at his parents and asked, "How many days to America?"