In this season of giving thanks, I’ve chosen some books you may not expect to see face out in November. If you’re looking for books about pie or pumpkins or the Macy’s Day Parade, go here. This month’s picks may not come to mind on a top ten list of “books about gratitude.” This gives me great joy! I love when a book checks many boxes, and I love thinking out of the box when it comes to finding just the right book.
When you google quotes about gratitude, you’ll find many good ones. Jason Reynolds says, “Gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can give. And it’s not a gift we often give to children. We expect it of them, but we don’t necessarily give it back.”
Wow. What a profound difference it can make in a young life, to hear an adult say they are thankful for you, and what a great opportunity we have to share these words when we sit down with a stack of books to read together. I know it because I’ve been on the receiving end, as well as the giving. It can start when babies understand nothing but the sound of your voice, and it never has to stop. Grateful for stories, and children, and each person who reads this newsletter. Just grateful.
I have to admit a personal bias going into any book about a grandma, now that I am one. The book starts with a girl on a couch wearing a party hat looking at her birthday wish list, with things like computer, robot dog, and headphones included. You were hoping for one of these, says the text, But, surprise! It’s a . . . lemon tree. What a great spread, with the girl looking disappointed and a smiling grandma handing her a potted tree. Turn the page and we get a primer on how to act when you get a gift you don’t love, including illustrations of the desired expression, and encouragement to be polite and keep smiling until Grandma leaves (or falls asleep). It goes on to say, and do not harm your lemon tree. Ha!
Children’s book authors are often told not to preach a lesson when writing for kids, but this book does it with wit and charm and imagination. Don’t: Drop it off a bridge. Tie it to your birthday balloons. It address a very real problem we’ve probably all encountered, how to be grateful when you don’t get what you want. We watch the little girl care for her lemon tree, name it Lola, love it and eventually pick the lemons and you guessed it, make lemonade with her Grandma. But that’s not where it ends! It gets even better.
The girl and her grandma make a lemonade stand and the girl heads to the store with the money she makes. It’s a megastore with computers and robot dogs. Now you can finally buy exactly what you want. Wait a second, is it really wrapping up with the girl getting what was on her original list? Of course not! She buys flowers she can share with others, including, of course, Grandma.
I read this book to my kids when they were little, and it makes me so happy that it’s still in print. Here, we see what Jason Reynolds encouraged when he said adults need to give children gratitude, not just demand it. A mother sees a “strange bundle” and asks herself, What can it be? She makes guesses, Can it be a bundle of laundry? I think I don’t need any laundry. The bundle replies, No, I’m not a bundle of laundry, or carrots, or a monkey, nor Humpty Dumpty or a bird, none of which the mother needs. Two birds? teases the mom as she touches a curl that’s escaped from under the blanket. No, no, no, no, no, no, insists the bundle.
Finally, the mom asks, What can you be? Tell me! and an adorable, rosy-cheeked child (could be a boy or girl), pops out and says, It’s me! Then the mother says, You! Well, so it is! So you are. It’s you. And—you’re just what I need. They nuzzle nose to nose in an embrace, Mom in her bathrobe and the child in an undershirt, an intimate, sweet moment to savor and then read again.
With just 45 words paired with engaging and beautiful illustrations and an important message for everyone, this book could be read to any age. It opens with a bird who looks sad, and the word Nothing. A mouse gives a marble to the bird, who takes it to its nest, Something. Then the birds finds a lego and a penny for its nest, A few, several, and then adds keys, a necklace, glasses, more, and more, and more. It has Lots. Plenty. A bit much. Much too much. The birds weighs its nest down with toys and a toothbrush and other things it pilfered, makes even more nests when the first is full, until finally a limb breaks and one of the nests falls. Way too much.
Mouse is there, looking concerned. In a brilliant double page spread the bird picks up the penny from another nest and we read, Enough? As in, is it enough to give up one small thing? Turn the page and the mouse is shrieking Enough! Another limb breaks, another nest falls, the bird is buried in its stuff, and mice come to the rescue. They help the bird get rid of stuff, gifting it to other animals. There’s so much to look at in these illustrations as they sift through the trash that became treasure that became too much.
Finally the mouse rides on the bird’s back with just two things trailing behind, tied with ribbon, the original marble and a chess piece.
There’s an inscription at the front of this book to Rebeka from my husband and me: You have taught us what really matters-we are so glad you’re in our life! For those who have read my middle grade, Her Own Two Feet, co-authored with Rebeka, you know her story.
She left Rwanda at age 9 to live with our family for almost a year while she had surgeries to correct her club feet. She taught us so much while she was here, and we’ve learned about gratitude from many Rwandans while visiting their beautiful country. Those living without water or electricity in their home express gratitude for their family and friends and faith, and we are humbled. I’m grateful her picture book stayed here when Rebeka went back home, so I could read it now and be reminded and share it. But I’m planning to buy another copy to keep, so I can give this copy back to Rebeka next time I go to Rwanda.
Dianna Hutts Aston is a brilliant writer, she’s the author of the series An Egg is Quiet, A Shell is Cozy, and many others. In Bless This Mouse we begin with a sleepy-eyed mouse with prayers to say, a sleepy-eyed mouse, quite small and gray-Ready to dream the day away. Makes me sigh and snuggle in as I turn the page to read these prayers of gratitude. Bless Fawn, Raccoon, Skunk, and Snail. Bless stripes and rings and spots and trails. What’s so brilliant is she doesn’t just name animals, she goes further and names their attributes. The sleepy-eyed mouse blesses the owl, and his howl. And then there’s this, Bless the pokers and the peepers. Bless the fliers, and the leapers. Aston changes things up just a bit, while giving the reader such a satisfying, lilting, lullaby rhyme.
Did I mention all the creatures are soft? Like, the page is flocked so you can touch the porcupine, the mouse, the bat, the bunnies, and they’re all really soft. I am so grateful for this one.
This is one of those picture books that can fall into so many “categories,” from grandparents to transportation to gratitude. It starts with examples of ingratitude as a little boy named CJ leaves church with his nana and walks in the rain to a bus stop. “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?” he asks, and she replies, “Trees get thirsty, too.” CJ wishes they had a car so the didn’t have to take the bus, and wishes he didn’t have to go wherever they’re going when his friends get to play. Each time, Nana has an encouraging answer. She also makes sure her grandson greets the other bus passengers with a smile and a “good afternoon.” She’s raised him right, and we see it when CJ gives his seat to a blind man who boards.
When two teenagers get on with a walkman and CJ wishes he had one, too, Nana asks him, “What for? You got the real live thing sitting across from you,” as a man with guitar sitting across from them begins to play. The blind man tells them he likes to listen to music with his eyes closed to feel the magic. When CJ tries, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city. They finally get to the last stop on Market Street, and we discover where Nana and CJ are headed: to a soup kitchen in a dirty part of town where they’ll serve food. Nana points out a rainbow in the sky, and CJ wonders how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look. What a great recipe for gratitude! This is a reminder that beauty surrounds us, and connecting with and serving others can fill us with thanksgiving. It’s also a beautiful book. When I see anything illustrated by Christian Robinson, I know I’ll love the color and whimsy and heart.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
I know many of you could recite this book by heart, but why this book for gratitude? It’s that last line, set on that empty last page, “and it was still hot.” For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Max, he wears a wolf suit and makes mischief until his mom sends him to bed without eating anything. That very night a forest grew, and grew, and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.” Max gets in a boat and sails on the ocean that “tumbled by” and almost a year later gets to where the wild things are. He tames them by staring at them without blinking, and so they make him king and they have a wild rumpus until Max tells them to stop and sends them off to bed without their supper.
Aha! We’ve got that iconic circle we often see in picture books, where the narrative ends where it begins, but the story isn’t over, thank goodness, and we’ll do another loop-de-doop. Max realizes he is lonely and wants to be ““where someone loved him best of all.” And just then, he smells good things to eat. He’s made the turn, a little softer and more humble after getting exactly what he wants and realizing there’s a tradeoff. He gives up being king, and getting exactly what he wants, and says goodbye to the monsters. (Side note, the monsters in this book, with their yellow eyes and sharp teeth, scared my husband so bad when he was a little boy he hid the book.)
Max arrives home, to “his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him,” and then there’s that lovely page turn, that blank page, and the words, “and it was still hot.” It was even better than better, grace upon grace. Not only did his mother leave it for him, she kept it warm. We never see Mom, but I like to imagine that after Max eats his hot dinner he crawls up into her lap for a snuggle.