Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. In the most generic terms, it revolves around family, gratitude, and eating, which pretty much sums up my favorite things in life. However, when it comes to sharing stories about Thanksgiving, it’s hard to find books that are historically accurate, especially considering the “First Thanksgiving” never happened as we know it. Not only is the Thanksgiving story many of us learned historically inaccurate, but also for Native Americans, it is a reminder of the betrayal, theft, genocide and discrimination the Native people faced, and struggles they still do face in this country.
As a children’s librarian, I believe most of the children’s books on Thanksgiving are cringe-worthy awful and focus on the perpetuated myth of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down for a meal, becoming friends, and living happily ever after. However, that is not what happened, and as such for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is often considered a day of mourning. Some treat it as a day of reflection and honor their heritage with education and activism. Many do use the day off to enjoy a meal with loved ones and practice gratitude for what they have. Gratitude is weaved into their culture and everyday life, so when we are not perpetuating the lies and harmful stereotypes, many Native Americans are pleased to have a day that does what they do regularly: give thanks for all they have.
With the children I work with at the library and my own children at home, I prefer to focus on gratitude, inclusion, and kindness, as well as sharing positive information from Native Americans themselves that accurately reflect their culture, history, and continued strength in the face of adversity. We can’t erase what has been done, but we can learn in order to do better. This begins with educating ourselves and sharing books and information that does not perpetuate inaccurate information and negative stereotypes.
These are my favorite picture books that I feel capture the essence of being thankful and appreciative, are not just about the Thanksgiving holiday.
1. Bear Says Thanks
Bear Says Thanks celebrates the essence of what Thanksgiving means for us: a celebration of gratitude with our loved ones over a big meal. Bear is bored and would love nothing more than to have friends over for a feast, but his cupboard is bare. In come his friends from the cold bringing food with them to share, reassuring Bear that his company and stories are all they want from him. (by Karma Wilson; illustrated by Jane Chapman)
2. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message
Thanksgiving is a regular celebration of gratitude for Native Americans. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message is a simplified version of their ancient prayer and message of gratitude for the natural world that provides us with nourishment, comfort, and beauty. This exemplifies what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans, not the fabricated holiday. (by Chief Jake Swamp; illustrated by Erwin Printup, Jr.)
3. Thank You Day
Thank You Day is an early reader book based on an episode of “Neighborhood Thank You Day” from the children’s TV show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It not only demonstrates showing appreciation and gratitude for the people in our lives and what they do for us, but it shows an actionable way to show gratitude and spread cheer in the way of a “wishing tree” by placing thank yous on a tree. A more environmentally-friendly spin would be to do it inside, instead of outside where they can blow away easily, littering the landscape (Spoiler alert: We don’t all have a Mr. McFeely to pick them all up). (Adapted by Farrah McDoogle; illustrations by Gord Garwood)
4. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Like Giving Thanks, We Are Grateful shows gratitude as part of the fabric of everyday life for Native Americans. We Are Grateful not only positively displays Native Americans’ traditions and cultures, it also shows how they are American, from their role in history (briefly mentioning the devastating Trail of Tears) to serving in the military. This book is written in English, but also incorporates and defines certain Cherokee words. This is a wonderful book that not only exemplifies gratitude in the world around us, but shares a not-often-seen glimpse into the traditions and culture of today’s Cherokee members. (by Traci Sorrell; illustrated by Frane Lessac)
5. The Thankful Book
What sets The Thankful Book apart from the other general gratitude books is that it states “I am thankful for ____ because____.” It subscribes to a gratitude philosophy of turning adverse situations into ones of gratitude and seeing the positive. Although the situations are not necessarily adverse, it does include why we can be thankful for school, all the seasons, and vegetables. (by Todd Parr)
6. Give Thank You a Try
In Give Thank You a Try there are a variety of illustrators bring to life depict children showing gratitude for the people in their lives and everyday things that bring simple joy to their lives. Situations and rituals that exemplify gratitude are also shown to add more depth to the more frivolous and serve as examples of how we can incorporate these rituals into our lives with our families. (by James Patterson)
In Thankful, a family shows gratitude for everyday things, often replicating more real world situations. It is a white, traditional, Christian family (one page: “The pastor is thankful for God’s loving word”), so this book may not be for everyone. For those that are comfortable with it, it is an uplifting book that shines gratitude on the positive of situations. (by Eileen Spinelli; illustrated by Archie Preston)
This post about Thanksgiving books for kids would not be complete without mentioning the only book that is universally recommended by Native Americans for being historically accurate and clearing up misinformation and stereotypes: 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic by Catherine O’Neill Grace).
For more information on books to consider and books to avoid from the Native American perspective, I highly recommend starting with one of the most active voices on the subject, Debbie Reese, Ph.D., who created the website American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Books are a launching pad to get a conversation started. I hope these books start some wonderful conversations in your family and, perhaps, some new traditions. This is a perfect time to start traditions that incorporate gratitude, as well as ways that we can create a Thanksgiving that not just honors our land’s first people, but gives back and allows us to be true partners and allies, turning the myth of true friendship into reality.