As our story opens, Sarah Hale is gathered with her five children around the Thanksgiving table. No one looks happy, and no wonder: “They had just returned from their father’s grave and were not in a thankful mood.” Sarah herself, while grieving for her beloved husband, carries the additional burden of feeding her family. But she bows her head: “Dear Lord, we’re thankful for having known him. We are thankful for his love. And we are thankful for the love we have for each other.” Silently she adds a prayer for gainful employment.
The next pages show how her prayer was answered, and then some. A lifelong reader and writer, Sarah was soon able to support her family through her poems and stories, and eventually as the editor of the phenomenally popular journal, Godey’s Ladies Book. By this account, she was the Oprah of her day, whose recommendations could create best-sellers and whose advice could set trends. She campaigned for expanded educational opportunities for women and recognition for historical monuments, and sometime in the 1840s decided that Thanksgiving—generally celebrated only in New England—should be a national holiday. She began a letter-writing campaign, which her readers were invited to join, intended to persuade the president of the United States to make the declaration. Four presidents in a row said no. The fifth had a different point of view, forced on him by circumstances:
Lincoln understood that sometimes it was hard to remember good things in hard times. People needed a day to be thankful for food on their tables, roofs over their heads and the blessings in their lives.
The gentle watercolor illustrations show Sarah and her children growing older until the final page, where she holds a grandchild surrounded by grown sons and daughters, each face an echo of her prayer of thanks from the first page.
You think you know everything about Thanksgiving, don’t you? How the Native Americans saved the Pilgrims from starving [and] how the Pilgrims held a big feast to celebrate and say thank you . . . Well listen up. I have a news flash . . .
The author’s news flash is that Thanksgiving was fading away and would have disappeared from the American calendar altogether if it weren’t for Sarah Hale. “Not only did she fight for Thanksgiving, she fought for playgrounds for kids, schools for girls, and historical monuments for everyone.” That sets the tone: Mrs. Hale as activist crusader rather than devout, hard-working and family-centered person she seems to have been. There is no mention of her beloved husband or the primary reason she turned to writing: as a way to support her family. Not much either about what Thanksgiving actually means—apparently Sarah campaigned for the holiday because she loved it and thought it would be a good thing for everybody.
The illustrations are clever, slightly cartoonish and often symbolic: for instance, with a giant quill pen the women of America storm a generic state house (staffed by men) engraved with the motto: GO AWAY WE’RE BUSY. Sarah doesn’t age during the thirty-year process, appearing as an epic figure in page after page. But I doubt that she would have wrapped herself in the feminist mantle, for even though she believed firmly in women’s education, she also believed that men and women occupied separate spheres of influence. When asked to take on the editor’s job at Godey’s in Philadelphia, she preferred the title “editress” and asked to do her work from Boston until her son graduated from Harvard. No doubt Sarah was “bold, brave, stubborn, and smart,” but the superhero label Anderson seems determined to stick on her is over the top. I like the human stature of Sarah Gives Thanks a lot better: a good woman, by all accounts, and that’s “super” enough.
Apple was the first cut-paper artwork by Nikki McClure, who created the book sixteen years ago and liked it so much she printed copies at Kinko’s to sell online. This year sees its publication in hardcover by Abrams. It’s tells a basic storyline in one-word paragraphs: an apple falls from a tree and meets a fate different from its peers. In fact, this is one of those rare apples that makes it to tree-hood. The illustrations simple but striking in black and white with touches of red; they remind me of seventeenth-century woodcuts. A paragraph at the end explains the life cycle of an apple tree and the optimum conditions for planting. Though beautifully produced, it may appeal more to adults than kids. But little ones will enjoy putting the sequence together, and before long they’ll be able to “read” the story to you.
The Thankful Book, by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2012, 32 pages. Age/interest level: 3-up.
An Awesome Book of Thanks! by Dallas Clayton. HarperCollins, 2012, 83 pages. Age/interest level: 4-up
Todd Parr is best known for simple theme books (on bullying, family, manners, diversity) that look like they could have been illustrated by their intended audience: smiley stick figures in bright primary colors. Dallas Clayton writes on similar themes in a similar style—his figures are just as smiley and colorful but all seem to come from Planet Egg: at least, that’s the general shape of them. Like Nikki McClure, he self-published his picture books (starting with An Awesome Book! In 2008) and promoted them so effectively he caught the interest first of Amazon Encore and next of HarperCollins. Dallas sounds like a terrific guy and for a few pages at a time this is a terrific book. “Thanks for trees and thanks for trains and for the breeze and for the rain and thanks for books to fill my brain.” He has a rare gift for rhyming and an exuberant style but, like Todd Parr (and many other authors of Thanksgiving picture books), he can’t bring himself to thank anyone in particular for all this great stuff. So he gives thanks to the things he’s thankful for, which should cause any self-respecting four-year-old to scratch his head and say “Huh?”
One good thing both these books do is call to mind “thanks-worthy” things that kids might overlook, like shadows and bubble baths (Parr) and unpleasant experiences (Clayton): “Those bad things can turn out to be good/Those bumps and those bruises that turn ‘couldn’ts’ to ‘coulds’ . . .” And that’s all to the good, as long as the kids remember Him to Whom thanks is due.
Check out our Thanksgiving posts from last year: a chat with Susan Hunt (including recipes!), Emily’s roundup of Thanksgiving books, Janie’s collection of literary cookbooks, and a great biography of Myles Standish.