Celebrations and Festivals: A Calendar of Holidays | Focus On

Kids love holidays. Any kind of celebration or festival brings a break in routine, an excuse for a party, perhaps a chance to dress up. Multigenerational family gatherings and the enacting of annual rituals bring a sense of continuity, and sharing celebrations with the greater community enhances a sense of belonging. Whether the festivities are based on personal rites of passage, religious traditions, or historical events, the key is togetherness. Celebrating together strengthens the bonds among people and reaffirms our identities, individually and collectively.

The books featured here have been arranged to follow the course of a year. You’ll notice that Christmas and Hanukkah are missing; they are covered annually in SLJ’s October issue. Those familiar with National Geographic’s beautiful “Holidays Around the World” series of photo-essays may also wonder at its exclusion. Rather than list the individual titles, I am making a blanket recommendation for these finely crafted books on Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Passover, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. Each title combines crisp international photography with broad holiday themes and descriptions of specific customs.

The titles annotated here are mostly short, lively, illustrated books aimed at younger readers. They represent a mix of realistic fiction, nonfiction guides to history and observance, and a few imaginative tales of anthropomorphic animals and objects. Consider reading them aloud to enhance the celebrations of the holidays described.

Late Winter to Spring

COMPESTINE, Ying Chang. The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale. illus. by Sebastià Serra. Dutton. 2011. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-525-42068-2. K-Gr 4–This Chinese twist on a Danish folktale introduces a helpful wok that takes from the rich and gives to the poor, bringing rice, toys, and money so the community can celebrate the New Year. Lively acrylic paintings and a satisfyingly repetitive text showcase Chinese New Year customs.

FLANAGAN, Alice K. Carnival. illus. by Roberta Collier-Morales. (Holidays and Festivals Series). Compass Point . 2003. PLB $25.32. ISBN 978-0-756-50478-6. K-Gr 4–This basic but thorough introduction pays special attention to Mardi Gras as celebrated in New Orleans, but the holiday’s variants in Brazil, the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico are also discussed. Complemented by festive drawings.

TOMPERT, Ann. Saint Valentine. illus. by Kestutis Kasparavicius. Boyds Mills. 2004. RTE $15.95. ISBN 978-1-590-78181-4. Gr 2-5–History and legend seamlessly combine in this picture-book biography of a Christian priest persecuted for his beliefs in third-century Rome. Connections with the modern holiday include Valentine’s sending parchment hearts to imprisoned Christians, performing secret marriage ceremonies, and his February 14th martyrdom. Gentle watercolors set the scene.

ROCKWELL, Anne. St. Patrick’s Day. illus. by Lizzy Rockwell. HarperCollins. 2010. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-06-050197-6. PreS-Gr 2–Mrs. Madoff’s students learn about St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland by writing reports, playacting, and dancing in this gentle, cheerfully illustrated story. The well-known mother-daughter duo offer similarly satisfying fare in Thanksgiving Day (HarperCollins, 1999).

WALLACE, Nancy Elizabeth. The Valentine Express. illus. by the author. Marshall Cavendish. 2004. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-761-45183-9. PreS-Gr 2–Wallace’s signature papercut bunnies learn about the history and customs of Valentine’s Day at school, then go home and spread the love by making heart-themed gifts for their neighbors. Instructions for the charming crafts are incorporated into this upbeat story.

WONG, Janet S. This Next New Year. illus. by Yangsook Choi. Farrar. 2000. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-35503-6. PreS-Gr 2–A young Korean-Chinese protagonist, along with his French-German and Hopi-Mexican friends, prepares for the annual lunar celebration of renewal by cleaning his home and his body, eating special foods, and vowing to think positively. Bright illustrations and rhythmic text depict both the universal and the culture-specific traditions associated with the start of a new year.

Spring to Summer

ADA, Alma Flor. Let Me Help!/¡Quiero ayudar! illus. by Angela Domínguez. Children’s Book Press. 2010. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-89239-232-2. Gr 2-5–Perico the parrot echoes young Martita: “Let me help! Let me help!” as the family makes tamales and paper flowers for Cinco de Mayo, but his offer is rejected. Yet when a bridge knocks the top off the family’s decorated barge, Perico helps at last, redecorating by perching aloft, colorful wings spread. Bilingual text and bright paintings create a festive atmosphere.

BRETT, Jan. The Easter Egg. illus. by author. Putnam. 2010. RTE $17.99 ISBN 978-0-399-25238-9. K-Gr 2–Bunnies decorate eggs, hoping to be named the Easter Bunny’s helper. Hoppi is distracted from the competition when a robin’s egg falls from its nest, but his valiant caregiving pays off. Delicate and detailed, the richly hued illustrations evoke the beauty of this springtime holiday.

COX, Judy. Cinco de Mouse-O! illus. by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Holiday House. 2010. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-2194-7. K-Gr 2–Mouse finds traditional foods and mariachi music at a Cinco de Mayo festival. Bright, dynamic illustrations show him perching on a musician’s sombrero, riding the burro piñata, and avoiding the predatory Cat. An introduction provides history, while the entertaining story supplies a survey of the holiday’s activities. For an equally enticing adventure involving these engaging rivals, try One Is a Feast for Mouse: A Thanksgiving Tale (Holiday House, 2008).

DEMUNN, Michael. The Earth Is Good: A Chant in Praise of Nature. illus. by Jim McMullan. Scholastic. 1999. RTE $15.95. ISBN 978-0-590-35010-5. PreS-Gr 2–While Earth Day isn’t mentioned by name, this book embodies its spirit. Simple, powerful statements, “The sun is good./The earth is good./The trees are good,” are accompanied by lush watercolors of a joyful boy and his dog immersing themselves in nature. The final statement, “And you are good,” helps readers see themselves as stewards of the Earth.

HANFT, Josh. The Miracles of Passover. illus. by Seymour Chwast. Blue Apple. 2007. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-59354-600-7. K-Gr 3–Liftable flaps and bright cartoon-style illustrations enhance this simple retelling of the biblical Exodus. Readers will learn about the Passover Seder and the story it recalls of Moses and Pharaoh and the Jewish slaves’ escape from ancient Egypt. An engaging account, relayed with a clever, interactive design.

KAHN, Hena. Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story. illus. by Julie Paschkis. Chronicle. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8118-6062-8. Gr 2-4–A Pakistani-American girl celebrates the lunar Muslim holidays, Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr. Her family participates in holiday customs, fasting by day and eating special foods at night, sharing food with the poor, visiting a mosque, and painting hands with henna. Intricate, deeply colored illustrations portray a diverse Muslim-American community.

LEHMAN-WILZIG, Tami. Passover Around the World. illus. by Elizabeth Wolf. Kar-Ben. 2006. RTE $15.95. ISBN 978-1-58013-213-8; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-58013-215-2. Gr 2-5–Universal and particular customs of the Jewish holiday are explored with a focus on the United States, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Morocco, and Israel. Quick facts, maps, recipes, and stories of contemporary celebrations in each country are accompanied by warm paintings. A fun, international approach. See also Hanukkah Around the World (Lerner, 2009).

OSBORNE, Mary Pope. Happy Birthday, America: A Story of Independence Day. illus. by Peter Catalanotto. Millbrook/Roaring Brook. 2003. Tr $15.95 978-0-7613-1675-6; PLB $22.90. ISBN 978-0-7613-2761-5; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-051-8. K-Gr 2–An extended family enjoys a small-town celebration with a carnival, parade, concert, public reading of the Declaration of Independence, and fireworks. Nostalgic watercolors evoke the warmth of the community. An author’s note explains the origin of the holiday.

ROBERT, Na’ima B. Ramadan Moon. illus. by Shirin Adl. Frances Lincoln. 2009. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-84507-922-2. K-Gr 4–Free-verse text and mixed-media collage illustrations create a satisfying depiction of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr. A girl describes the excitement of the holidays, the visits to the mosque, good deeds, acts of charity, and breaking of bad habits, all of which are part of the observance.

WILDSMITH, Brian. The Easter Story. illus. by the author. Eerdmans. 2004. Knopf. 1994. Tr $20. ISBN 978-0-802-85189-5. K-Gr 4–Gorgeous jewel-toned panoramic artwork accented with gold depicts the events of the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story is told from the point of view of Jesus’s donkey, allowing for a childlike simplicity in the text. A visually stunning introduction to a major Christian holiday.

Autumn to Early Winter

Media Picks

By Phyllis Levy Mandell

Holidays for Children (Series). 26 DVDs. range: 12-23 min. with tchr's. guides. Library Video Co. 1994. $389.35 ser., $14.98 ea. PreS-Gr 3–A lively mix of live-action, simple animation, photography, puppets, clever graphics, and still pictures combine to explain the meaning and history of 26 holidays including Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Halloween, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, Earth Day, Arbor Day, Presidents' Day, and many more. Music, food, and dance, as well as traditional musical instruments from the highlighted culture, are presented.

National Observances (American History for Children Series). DVD. 25 min. with tchr's. guide. Library Video Co. 1996. $14.98. Gr 1-4–This program, featuring animation, live-action footage, and sing-along songs, explains why we celebrate Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, and Election Day. Winter Holiday Stories. DVD. 27 min. Weston Woods. 2001. ISBN 978-1-555-92970-1. $59.95. PreS-Gr 3–Includes three animated/iconographic holiday tales based on award-winning children’s books: In the Month of Kislev by Nina Jaffe, Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, and The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

BRENNER, Tom. And Then Comes Halloween. illus. by Holly Meade. Candlewick. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3659-3. K-Gr 2–Poetic text and watercolor and collage illustrations create an atmospheric picture of Halloween. Sensory descriptions evoke the fall weather and children’s anticipation as they carve pumpkins, decorate houses, and prepare costumes. Both spooky and sweet, just like the holiday itself.

GILMORE, Rachna. Lights for Gita. illus. by Alice Priestley. Second Story Press. 1995. pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-929005-61-4. Gr 1-4–New Canadian Gita misses the Divali celebrations back home in New Delhi. An ice storm knocks out power and nixes plans for fireworks that celebrate this Hindu “festival of lights.” Looking at the diyas (oil lamps), she remembers the holiday’s meaning of finding light within ourselves. Gentle watercolors bring Gita’s home to life.

GOODE, Diane. Thanksgiving Is Here! illus. by the author. HarperCollins. 2003. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-051588-1; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-051590-4. PreS-Gr 3–An extended family gathers to talk, play, make music, hug, and eat Grandma’s turkey dinner. Amusing subplots are hidden within the buzz of activity in the detailed pen-and-ink and watercolor cartoons. This story is as warm and joyful as the holiday itself.

JULES, Jacqueline. Duck for Turkey Day. illus. by Kathryn Mitter. Albert Whitman. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8075-1734-5. Gr 1-4–Tuyet’s class enjoys turkey crafts and turkey songs, so her Vietnamese-American family’s Thanksgiving duck worries her. Post-Thanksgiving, she is surprised to discover that many classmates ate alternatives, from lamb to enchiladas. Sweetly illustrated, this story shows that the heart of the holiday is family togetherness and gratitude.

JULES, Jacqueline. The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. illus by Katherine Janus Kahn. Kar-Ben. 2001. pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-580-13028-8. PreS-Gr 4–God asks the mythical Ziz bird to search for “the hardest word” to make amends for smashing the children’s garden. Defeated, the Ziz apologizes and discovers that the hardest word is “sorry,” the word all say on Yom Kippur to atone for wrongdoings. Charming cartoon artwork keeps the tone playful despite the serious message.

KATZ, Karen. My First Kwanzaa. illus. by the author. Henry Holt. 2003. RTE $14.95. ISBN 978-0-805-07077-4. PreS-Gr 2–Brightly hued collage and mixed-media illustrations pop with joy in this buoyant introduction to the African-American harvest holiday. Narrated by a smiling little girl surrounded by loving extended family and friends, she explains how seven candles lit over seven days each celebrate a particular principle of Kwanzaa.

KONTIS, Alethea. Alpha Oops! H Is for Halloween. illus. by Bob Kolar. Candlewick. 2010. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3966-2. K-Gr 3–Alphabet letters, randomly ordered, show off their costumes: “Z is for zombie. N is for nightmare,” and so on. Poor B’s buccaneer costume is stolen by P for pirate, but B gets the final word: “BOO!” Glowing nighttime pictures add zest to the funny, spooky tale.

MILLER, Pat. Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution. illus. by Kathi Ember. Albert Whitman. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8075-7591-8. PreS-Gr 2–Squirrel wants to make a resolution, “a promise you make to yourself to be better or to help others.” As she walks through the woods, pausing to cheer up Skunk, assist Mole and Turtle, and joke with Porcupine, Squirrel realizes that she can help someone every day. Cheery acrylic illustrations reflect the tone.

MUSLEAH, Rahel. Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah . illus. by Judy Jarrett. Kar-Ben Publishing. 2004. pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-580-13123-0. Gr 2-6–A mix of history, blessings, songs, and stories guides read ers in creating their own celebrations for the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah traditions from many lands are described, and symbolic foods are incorporated into the observance. Recipes are included, encouraging participation. Autumnal watercolor illustrations create a joyful atmosphere.

OLD, Wendie. The Halloween Book of Facts and Fun. illus. by Paige Billin-Frye. Albert Whitman. 2007. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-8075-3133-4. Gr 2-4–An excellent resource for understanding the holiday more fully, this short chapter book is packed with information about history and customs. Cartoon-style illustrations and silly jokes keep the material kid-friendly even though some of the historical information is quite dark. Back matter includes recipes, party games, and safety tips.

VERMA, Jatinder, retel. The Story of Divaali. illus. by Nilesh Mistry. Barefoot. 2002. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-841-48936-0; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1-846-86131-4. Gr 2-4–Verma focuses his retelling of The Ramayana on “that of the fifteenth-century poet Tulsidass.” The complicated, action-packed tale may prove somewhat hard to follow for readers new to the epic, but the story conveys universal themes of bravery and the triumph of love over evil. Gouache paintings are highlighted with fascinating detail.

WAYLAND, April Halprin. New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story. illus. by Stéphane Jorisch. Dial. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-3279-7. K-Gr 3–Izzy’s family and congregation celebrate the Jewish New Year by asking forgiveness from those they have wronged during the year and with a Tashlich ceremony in which they symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread into the water. Light-filled watercolors and a buoyant text keep the potentially heavy topic child-friendly.

WINTER, Jeanette. Calavera Abecedario: a Day of the Dead Alphabet Book. illus. by the author. Harcourt. 2004. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-152-05110-5; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-152-05906-4. K-Gr 4–Within a frame story of a family celebration is a friendly skeleton-themed alphabet offering words and characters related to the culture and holiday. A Spanish glossary and author’s note provide background about the holiday. Vibrant artwork evokes Mexican folk art.

All Year Round

ALLEN, Nancy Kelly. “Happy Birthday”: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Song. illus. by Gary Undercuffler. Pelican. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-58980-675-7. Gr 1-3–Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill wrote songs together as children and adults. As schoolteachers, they began their days with their own composition, “Good Morning to All.” A change of words brought about “Happy Birthday to You.” Cheerful drawings show the energetic sisters’ impact on their community, and ultimately, the world.

HUGET, Jennifer LaRue. The Best Birthday Party Ever. illus. by LeUyen Pham. Random. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-84763-9; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-95763-5. K-Gr 2–A girl is excited about her birthday, “5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 8 hours” away. Outrageously snowballing party plans include magicians, rides, mounds of ice cream, and live hamsters as party favors, yet her modest party turns out to be perfect. Colorful, dynamic illustrations capture the anticipatory fun.

Heidi R. Estrin is Library Director at the Feldman Children’s Library, Congregation B’nai Israel of Boca Raton, FL.

On The Web

For Teachers:

Diversity Calendar. www3.kumc.edu/diversity. The University of Kansas Medical Center. Kansas City, KS. (Accessed 10/24/11). Developed by the Medical Center’s Human Resources division, this searchable month-by-month listing of holidays around the world can be sorted by ethnic/religious celebrations, national holidays, and other events. Selected entries link to brief descriptive information or to other relevant websites.

PBS: Holidays. www.pbs.org/topics/culture-society/holidays-celebrations. PBS. (Accessed 10/24/11). Dynamic links list updates with public television programming related to the current holiday season. From “Backyard Grilling” to “Lords of the Gourd,” articles, videos, and recipes are displayed according to their relevant content.

timeanddate.com. timeanddate.com. Time and Date AS. (Accessed 10/24/11). Customizable world clocks and calendars, astronomical information, and background on holidays in diverse countries are the highlights of this extensive Norway-based site. Coverage varies, but holidays in major English-speaking countries get thorough treatment.

For Students:

TOPICS Online Magazine for Learners of English. topics-mag.com/internatl/holidays/festivals.htm. Sandy and Thomas Peters. (Accessed 10/24/11). Gr 2-5–This online magazine for English-language learners includes an extensive section on world holidays. The essays were written by students (new submissions always accepted), giving the site a more experiential than informational feel. The simple layout and grassroots approach are highly engaging.

Winter Celebrations. kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/stories/peopleplaces/winter-celebrations. National Geographic Society. (Accessed 10/21/11). Gr 2-5—Brief descriptions of holidays and traditions celebrated during December and January, including Chinese New Year, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa, Three Kings, Day and others, are featured along with practical suggestions for making “the season a little brighter for others.”

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