Holiday Blessings: Beyond Tinsel and Trinkets

Holiday Blessings: Beyond Tinsel, Trinkets to compassion, welcome - Christmas ornamentsAirwaves thrum with familiar holiday tunes and shoppers crowd stores, it is easy to lose the true meaning of Christmas in the quest for the perfect gift. We must appreciate our holiday blessings and see beyond the attention-grabbing sparkle of tinsel and trinkets. We know our most valuable treasures are not wrapped in bows and fancy paper. They reside in our significant relationships, memories and good times shared with those we love and care about. These two books focus on true blessings whose value far exceeds dollars and cents. They depict the Christmas spirit of welcome, generosity and compassion and they highlight the transformative power of acts of kindness both small and large. In our hearts we know that the power of the season lies in the celebration of  “Peace on earth, good will to men.” When that ideal is fulfilled we will be truly blessed.
Holiday Blessings: Beyond Tinsel, Trinkets to compassion, welcome-the-blessing-cup-51ksoujm8zl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Although not about Christmas, The Blessing Cup  written and beautifully illustrated by acclaimed author-illustrator Patricia Pollacco offers a lovely holiday read. It recounts the history of a treasured family heirloom–a china teacup which belonged to her great-grandmother, Anna. It was a part of a surprise wedding present arrived–a magnificent and delicate china tea set which  Anna’s parents received as newlyweds. An enclosed gift card enclosed promised, “Anyone who drinks from [this tea set] has a blessing from God… Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy.”

Life in the shtetl was difficult. In the face of poverty and worsening persecution, Anna’s family treasures the tea set. Eventually,the Russian czar orders all Jews to leave, so they pack the tea set along with a few meager possessions. When Anna questions why they must leave, her father replies, “Because we are different from them.... They are afraid of what they don't understand. Click To Tweet” (The connection between the “No-room-at-the-inn theme of the Christmas story is obvious as is the similarity to current political climate and attitude towards immigrants and “Others.”)

The story continues and follows the family’s travails. Papa falls dangerously ill. In another parallel to the Christmas story, his life is saved when someone–a kind-hearted doctor–welcomes them and invites them to stay with him. When the political climate becomes too dangerous for the family, the doctor pays for their passage to America. The treasured tea set is the only thank you they can offer for his generosity. They leave this note, “Always remember, dear friend, You are the bread that fed us. You are the salt that flavored our lives…. We kept one cup so that we can still have its blessing…” Patricia Polacco still possesses–and treasures-this precious cup.

This poignant, true story serves to convey the spirit of joy and love that underlies the nativity story and highlights how small acts of kindness can transform heart, minds and, lives. It also reminds us that “things” can hold deep sentimental value that far exceeds their literal value.

magnifying-lens-AQ.2-161x300 Adoption-attuned Lens: This book can open conversations about who is family as well as discussions about the very real challenges some people face in life. In the absence of an “angel” like Dr. Pushkin, Anna’s great-grandmother’s story might have ended tragically.  The Blessing Cup  also vividly demonstrates how something can be a vessel of important sentimental value. It can segue into talking about how almost anything can operate as a trigger of vivid memories, some of which may reassure while others might be quite painful.

Holiday Blessings: Beyond Tinsel, Trinkets to compassion, welcome-my-two-blankets-51eryqdhk0l-_sx418_bo1204203200_My Two Blankets  written by Irena Kobald and illustrated by Freya Blackwood is another story that captures the Christmas spirit without being about the holiday itself. The story follows a child who must move. Moving is never easy. Children will readily empathize with this challenge. But My Two Blankets is not about an ordinary move from one neighborhood or one state, but a move from one country to another which magnifies the uprootedness experienced by a young girl who had been so full of joy that her aunt nicknamed her  “Cartwheel.” When she emigrates her war-torn country, Cartwheel feels overwhelmed, confused and sad.  She misses the familiar sights, smells and language of home. “Even the wind felt strange.” She no longer feels like herself. To escape the outside world, Cartwheel wraps herself in her favorite blanket.

Eventually she meets another child who strives to befriend her. They share a smile, Cartwheel holds back and resists the girl’s overtures. The girl overcomes Cartwheel’s caution and they play together on the swing. They meet several times. Cartwheel yearns to tell the girl that she’s glad to have her as a friend but she can’t speak the language. The girl’s English words land on Cartwheel’s ears, hard and indecipherable. Fear and longing for the comfort of her old life bubble up within her. Frustration and loneliness turn to anger. Cartwheel ponders “When I went home, I hid under my old blanket. I wondered if I would always feel sad. I wondered if I would ever feel like me again.”

When she returns to the playground, her new friend is not there. Cartwheel is surprised by her own disappointment and overjoyed when the girl returns with carefully folded pieces of paper. Eventually, they bypass the barrier of language and connect. Cartwheel weaves a “blanket” from the papers on which the English words are written. She comes to understand “My new blanket grew just as warm and soft and comfortable as my own blanket.”

Compassion and acceptance offered by the girl in the park transformed Cartwheel's life. Click To TweetThis child’s actions embody a “room-at-the-inn” approach that fulfills the Christmas message.

magnifying-lens-AQ.2-161x300 Adoption-attuned Lens: This book can open important conversations for adoptees–especially those adopted trans-racially or trans-culturally. Adoptees often talk about feeling isolated from their birth culture/race and struggle to learn how to absorb and integrate this part of their identity. Due to current political climate regarding immigrants and other races, many kids worry what this… Click To Tweet My Two Blankets can help start the conversation that will enable parents to reassure their children.



Nurturing Empathy and Courage in Children

Choclate milk por favor.51owM7KHujL._SY498_BO1,204,203,200_Because this is a presidential election year, households are viewing/listening to more news coverage than ever. Children notice the argumentative attitude displayed by many of the “talking heads” delivering their personal spin on the latest political firestorm.

Although children don’t truly comprehend what  is happening they certainly recognize the angry tenor of the discussions. Many kids worry about how these events will affect them, their families, communities and our country. These books address the experience of immigration and do a wonderful job of fostering empathy and recognizing the courage required to begin a new life whether in a foreign country or in a new family.

Chocolate Milk, Por Favor written by Maria Dismondy and charmingly illustrated by Donna Farrell, presents the story primarily from Johnny’s point of view. He fears being displaced as his class “makes room”  a new student; Readers also see Gabe’s perspective as the new student. Johnny acts out his fears through hostility but his classmates follow their teacher’s suggestion and help him learn how to fit in. While Gabe and Johnny do not speak the same language, they do share a love of soccer. Sport succeeds in breaking down barriers and mistrust.

I like how this book depicts many different reactions to the immigrant student’s arrival. This feels more believable. It also shows how Gabe and his classmates strive to communicate even though they don’t speak one another’s language. What they have in common–as kids, students and soccer players–outweighs the differences that divide them.

The book is based on the experiences of one of Maria Dismony’s students. This is a wonderful story because it portrays the situation from both sides. Children can easily discern the message of friendship and community at the core of the story: “to have a friend is first to be a friend.” It includes discussion questions to explore before and after reading the book as well as tips for English language learners. Chocolate Milk, Por Favor is a gem, especially when paired with the next story.

magnifying-lens-AQ.2-161x300 AQ Lens: For adopted children this book can easily tap into feeling alien as they enter their new world (their new family.) In some families they literally do not speak the same language. In other’s, their lack of shared experience and mutual history divides them. The challenge of learning to understand and trust one another rings true.


when this world was new.51STQQE90QL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_When This World Was New is written by D. H. Figueredo and illustrated by Enriqe O. Sanchez. This story follows Danilito on his journey from his tropical island homeland to America a place where he soon discovers has a magic of its own: snow! As Danilito soars over the ocean he leaves behind his familiar world. He worries about life in his new country, a place where doesn’t speak the language, where everything is foreign and unfamiliar, where the roads are thronged with traffic and the building soar into the sky. How will he ever feel at home here?

Danilito worries about his mother who is ill and his father who needs a job to provide for the family and get Danilito’s mother the health care she needs. He worries about school. How will he learn when he doesn’t speak English? How will he find the bathroom? Will he make friends?

Danilito’s father understands his sons fears. On Dani’s dreaded first day of school, Papi awakens him and helps him to dress. His dad wears unfamiliar clothes: heavy pants, sweater, a jacket and scarf. Papi helps Dani don similar clothing, soothing Danilito’s fears throughout the procedure. Then, they peek out the window. The world has been transformed. A layer of thick, white snow cloaks the ground, the trees, everything. “The parked cars had become polar bears.” Father and son go outside and experience this wonder together. They learn how to walk in the dense powder, to taste the icy flakes and to savor the silence. Buoyed by this magic morning, Danilito and his father feel ready to begin their momentous day.

When This World Was New does a superb job of immersing readers in the boy’s feelings. All of us know how it feels to be overwhelmed, frightened and reluctant to confront new situations, people and challenges. Anyone who has experienced snow knows the magical transformation fresh snow brings to the world. Sanchez’s illustrations perfectly suit the mood of the book and the image-rich text brings the day to life for those who have not.

magnifying-lens-AQ.2-161x300 AQ Lens: For adopted children this book can offer similar insights to Chocolate Milk, Por Favor  but through more of a first person lens. This will likely feel more intense and resonate more intensely with the parallels to their own experiences of entering the world of a new family. Be attentive to their mood as you share this book. Invite them to make the “connection” to their own life but do not press the issue if they resist. Wait until another time to revisit the book and offer another chance to discuss it.

How My Parents Learned to Eat.61NeasmU2pL._SY495_BO1,204,203,200_How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman and illustrated by Allen Say looks at the immigrant experience from a unique angle: a boy wonders how his American dad and his Japanese mother learned to share one another’s worlds. He does this by focusing on the differences in foods and eating utensils and the roller coaster of feelings they probably had as each made “assumptions” about the other’s thoughts and emotions. As in the other two stories reviewed in this post, characters are divided by language yet still mange to communicate–although after some miscues and erroneous “translations.” Reading Rainbow selected the book as a featured story.

magnifying-lens-AQ.2-161x300 AQ Lens: For adopted children this book can offer a less intensely associated experience being a “foreigner.” This time instead of presenting it from a child’s point of view (which tends to make it easier to identify with and place themselves in their experience,) the story unfolds through the adults. This places an extra layer o emotional distance which may make it more comfortable for the child to explore the ideas and emotions the story raises.