Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.
How Children's Books Can Help Intermarried Families Handle the December Holidays
"Why CAN'T we have a Christmas bush?" my son Eli whined, his voice rising with annoyance. It was time for our annual holiday struggle. In our household, with a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Christian father, the issue is fraught with layers of meaning, including my children's loyalty to their father. Despite his support of celebrating only Judaism in our home, his non-Jewish status becomes another of the arguments my children make for allowing us to enjoy Christmas "like everyone else."
When I am stumped, I go to the library. I look for a book with fictional characters with whom my child can identify. When you think about it, it's a natural reaction, something many adults instinctively do. When we experience impending motherhood or the empty-nest syndrome, we are naturally drawn to stories with characters facing the same issues.
Whether your child is adjusting to preschool, dealing with a bully or struggling with the December dilemma, you want to help but may have found that simply offering advice does not work. Perhaps your child is too young to understand explicit advice. Perhaps he's at that stage when your advice is the last thing he thinks he needs. However, you want to help your child solve the immediate problem and also learn how to approach other issues that lie ahead. Above all, you want to reach your child, to open the opportunity to discuss the issue. The right fiction can help.
If you can find a book dealing with a fictional situation similar to your child's issue, you can accomplish two important things. First, you can offer your child the reassurance that he isn't alone--the knowledge that other children have faced the same problem and found ways to deal with it. Second, with books, you can reach your child without preaching or lecturing. Is there a parent who hasn't experienced the glazed-eye syndrome the moment she opens her mouth to deliver well-meant words of wisdom? When you provide the right book to your child, to be read aloud together or read on his own, the glazed-eye syndrome surrenders to engagement in the story.
You'll want to read it together or separately, silently or out loud. Not every child will be enthusiastic about reading a book you've selected; he may not show interest, in which case there's no point in insisting. I always found it remarkably effective simply to leave the book around on the kitchen table. Sooner or later, I would see my child pick it up and become engrossed.
After you both have read the book, you may be ready to talk about it. But not every child will want to talk. Discussion is not critical to success with fiction. As any teacher knows, there are approaches other than talking for following up on reading, such as drawing, acting the story out, or producing a puppet show.
If your child is interested in talking, ask your child about the book, its plot and its main character. Talk about the problem the character is facing, and ask your child what he thinks the character is feeling. Ask your child what he thinks the character might do to solve the problem and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions. You may be surprised how well you can communicate when the focus isn't on your own child's behavior but on a fictional character.
For the December dilemma, three books deserve your consideration. Light the Lights! by Margaret Moorman (Cartwheel Books, 1994), is a picture book with bright warm watercolors. Emma's father is Jewish; both he and the extended family on his side enjoy Hanukkah traditions. Emma's mother is Christian and shares with Emma the pleasures of Christmas. Both parents are shown enjoying celebration of each other's holidays. Best for younger children, Light the Lights! offers a simple presentation of the holiday issue for an interfaith family. There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein, by Susan Sussman, illustrated by Charles Robinson (Albert Whitman & Company, 1983) offers a different perspective. When the main character, Robin, points out that some Jews have Christmas trees, her mother acknowledges that each family makes its own choice. Robin, like many Jewish children, is frustrated by the December school practice of making Christmas ornaments and singing Christmas carols. She longs to fit in. Her grandfather finds a solution of sorts--he shares with Robin his belief that there is a difference between helping friends celebrate their holiday--and celebrating because you believe in it. It's okay, he tells Robin, to enjoy a friend's holiday with her, but that's different than making it part of your life.
For older children, Jason's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story, by Beryl Lieff Benderly (Albert Whitman & Company, 2000) is a good choice. Jason, a 12-year-old boy, feels cynical about Hanukkah and left out of the pleasures of Christmas. But on the first night of Hanukkah, he is whisked into the past to join the struggle of the Maccabees. In vivid detail, we experience the plight of the Jews in ancient times. Jason's realization of the true miracle of Hanukkah is believable and engaging. A great choice for an older elementary school child.
This year, the December dilemma can be just a bit easier...with the help of a good book!