I love celebrating holidays, and I love good holiday books, whether fiction or non-fiction, picture books or stories. Since holiday books exist in their own distinct market, they’re rarely measure directly against the best children’s and youth fiction and non-fiction, and I don’t intend to do so here: that is, I’m not going to say that these are, all other considerations aside, great books. (Some of them are, but that’s not what I’m doing with this list.) After all, great books you’ll give to or read to your children anytime, but you probably won’t try to tell a Halloween story in May, no matter how good a story it is. So, with those caveats aside, here are some random holiday books that Melissa and I and our kids have really enjoyed, when the right time of year rolls around.
(One other quick note: there are no Christmas books on this list, as I’ve written on that subject before, as have many others. Everyone has their favorite Christmas stories; this is an attempt to give the other holidays some attention as well.)
In calendrical order:
Happy New Year! / Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts’ai!, by Demi. This is a great, informative and fun non-fiction book on the Chinese New Year, with entertaining drawings that detail the history of the holiday and all sorts of traditions associated with it. You get the banners and dragons, the temples and firecrackers, the good luck wishes and the lion dances, all of it. We usually make a batch of longevity noodles and other dishes on Chinese New Year; the kids aren’t into the food that much yet, but they definitely like the hong bao envelopes we hand out.
I’m not much of a fan of Valentine’s Day, especially when the expectation seems to be that kids should either 1) treat it as a purposeless, general, be-friends-with-everyone-and-eat-candy day, or 2) imitate adult Valentine’s rituals in some vaguely creepy way. Still, no holiday is entirely without historical interest or good stories. I like The Story of Valentine’s Day, by Clyde Bulla and Susan Kwas, which does a good job in actually showing, in a fun and child-appropriate way, the continuity of many Valentine’s traditions over the centuries. And our kids, for whatever reason, have really liked Will You Be My Valentine? by Steven Kroll and Lillian Hoban, a not-too-embarrassingly sweet tale of a boy who’s trying to figure out how to tell a girl that he actually likes her. (The fact that we have only daughters may account for the book’s popularity around our house.)
Julie called Gail Gibbons the “matriarch of children’s non-fiction,” and Gibbons proves it with St. Patrick’s Day, my favorite children’s book about the holiday–well-written, well-illustrated, and completely charming. As far as fiction goes, there are lots of fun St. Patrick’s Day or Irish-themed children’s stories out there; I especially like St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning, by Eve Bunting and Jan Brett, the cute story of a boy who is too little to march in his village’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and so defiantly wakes up at the crack of dawn to go march the whole route by himself.
For Easter, I’ve noticed a lot of children’s book publishers coming out with holiday stories of Jesus that play up His message of love, and talk about the mean people who killed Him and how He even forgave them, and then leave out the resurrection, or portray it an an entirely mystical experience on the part of the apostles. Trying for the post-religious, non-denominational thing, I guess. One book that definitely doesn’t go that route is The Easter Story, by Carol Heyer. I think the illustrations are gorgeous (I like the fact that you never see Jesus’s face, but always from behind, or just His hands), and it’s telling of the resurrection is unambiguous. I also love The Tale of the Three Trees, an old folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt with illustrations by Tim Jonke. It isn’t by any means specifically an Easter story–it could be a Christmas tale, or any time at all–but I include it in our holiday collection because it ends with a powerful invocation of the cross and the resurrection.
(Note: for a variety of reasons, we’ve shifted lot of Easter traditions over to May Day, and we celebrate a “spring holiday”–with May Day baskets, egg hunts, etc.–with the girls. The result is that we do most of the usual Easter stuff anyway, only sans the Bunny hopping around on Easter morning. However, we do have one Easter Bunny kid’s book: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, by Du Bose Heyward and Marjorie Hack. It’s a wonderful old classic that my mother adored, probably because the heroine of the book is a mother cottontail who has twenty-one children, all of whom she’s given different tasks to help run the house, while she is out delivering Easter eggs.)
There are scads of great children’s books appropriate for July 4th–history books, little biographies, patriotic stories. Interestingly, my two favorites are a couple of picture books based on national songs: The Star-Spangled Banner, illustrated by Peter Spier (it mixes pictures of the anthem’s “story” with pictures that cover the whole breadth of the American experience, including an illustration of the Salt Lake Temple), and America the Beautiful, illustrated by Wendell Minor (instead of crowding in numerous drawings, as Spier does, this one just has big, double-page spreads for each line of the song).
I come up pretty dry when it comes to Halloween. Amid all the cute ghost stories and histories, I just haven’t found much that I like. I’m not sure why–maybe because the Halloween children’s book market is dominated by cartoon characters like Arthur or Huggly. One good exception is Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White and Megan Lloyd. This is a really fun story, about an old woman who hates pumpkins, and gets her comeuppance. It has great detail, and manages to mix the nighttime and the harvest elements of the holiday quite well.
By contrast, I can think of a lot of Thanksgiving books I consider to be great. There is the classic Cranberry Thanksgiving, by Wende and Harry Devlin, which no home should be without. It captures a specific time and place as well as holiday book I’ve ever read. A very different Thanksgiving book, and another favorite, is Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner. This delightful book, crowded with hilarious illustrations, tells the story of Sarah Hale, a 19th-century reformer and publisher who made it her personal crusade to turn a dying, regional tradition into a national holiday (and did). It’s an ethusiastic, “never underestimate dainty little ladies” type of book, and our girls love it. Finally, while they needn’t be related to Thanksgiving in particular, check out a series of books by Kate Waters and photography Russ Kendall: On the Mayflower, Samuel Eaton’s Day, and Sarah Morton’s Day. The first describes the journey of the Mayflower through the eyes of a couple of children, the other two each give a day-in-the-life view of a Pilgrim boy and girl; each use along with the story photographs of child (and adult) performers at the Plimoth Plantation, the historical park in Massachussetts. They are captivating books (and they always make us want to visit Plimoth, to see the recreation of 17th-century Pilgrim life and the model of the Mayflower for ourselves).
If you’ve read this far, and have favorites I haven’t mentioned, please list them! We’re always on the lookout for holiday books.