Halloween is still two weeks away and I know, I really DO know that I should not be writing about Christmas stories, but I have a reason for doing so. I have chosen three picture books, all of them several years old, which were favorite read a-louds for different age groups when I was still working as a librarian. I will truly miss reading them this year, and hopefully, through the blog I can encourage someone else to locate copies of these books to share with some young readers. So, to give you time to locate these books either at your library or through your favorite bookstore, I am reviewing several Christmas stories early. Plan ahead, and share some quality Christmas literature this year.
But first, an editorial comment on picture books in general. Sadly, many school systems and parents, in an effort to raise test scores and keep focused on “instruction, instruction” have turned away from picture books. Book store owners have commented that parents of first and second graders come in only wanting to buy chapter books because their children are now independent readers. What a HUGE mistake. For those of you thinking “golden books” or syndicated Disney books, you need to check out the picture book section in a well stocked library sometime. Stories and pictures often detail complex themes and events, but focus on the young person’s level of understanding. I once heard an editor explain that even horrific topics like the Holocaust can be written about on a level that is not overwhelming for younger readers. And it is the combination of visual and written that packs the double whammy of understanding. The stories I chose to share with elementary students each Christmas season had underlying lessons that touched the heart in ways that connected with readers’ own experiences. In today’s popular reading pedagogy that is called text to self connections. To me, those emotional layers that can be built through books are the reason we read and should continue to read. So on to the first book review:
An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco
Patricia Polacco is known for her wonderful realistic family stories, many of which have an ethnic component. Show one of her illustrations to almost any elementary school teacher (or most Markesan elementary students above grade 2) and they will recognize her as the illustrator because her faces are so distinctive. My absolute favorite Polacco story is based on a real 11 year old from her family. In the 1930’s Frankie and his large family lived in rural Michigan, a good day’s wagon drive from any city. Frequently trains stopped at their homestead for more water, and if it was morning Frankie’s mother always had hotcakes and steaming coffee for the engineer and crew. Even more importantly, she would have the children take coffee and food out to the hobos who had hitched rides on the train. In the story, it is just a few days before Christmas and Frankie is sent outside to give the men their food when he notices that one of the men does not have a shirt on beneath his threadbare jacket. Knowing that his own hand-me-down clothes would not be large enough for the man, Frankie silently goes to his room and selects his best sweater – one his sister had knit for him the previous Christmas, and the boy gives it to the older man, who accepts it with tears in his eyes. Later, when his mother wants to know why Frankie is wearing his too small sweater for the holidays and when his sister says she has knit a muffler to match the sweater, the boy begins to think he has done something wrong by giving the sweater away. The story is called An Orange for Frankie because, like many families in the depression, the special gift for each child will be their fresh orange, a treat their father had to drive a day’s journey to get. And Frankie’s guilt over the sweater will be doubled when he sneaks an early smell and touch of his orange, only to somehow lose the fruit.
It takes almost thirty minutes to read this story out loud. That alone indicates a story with complex narration and rich detail. I always read it to fourth graders and it was a wonderful format for talking about the differences between their holiday expectations and the experiences of this family. There are excellent examples of family love and sacrifice, and honestly, I got choked up every time I read this story. Although the story has a happy ending for that Christmas, Polacco lets the readers know that this was Frankie’s last Christmas. He did not survive childhood (and neither did the real Frankie that the story is based on.) That ending always seemed to shock kids, but it was a great way to get them thinking about how medical advances are really quite recent. It is also powerful to show that a young man’s actions, like Frankie’s gift to the homeless man, can have such impact that his family remembers it years later. Childhood death is rarer now, but it is probably that detail in the book that makes such a strong connection for me. My father, now 93, never spoke much about his own childhood when I was growing up. He certainly never made a big deal out of Christmas presents for us, although there were always plenty. It was only as an adult that I realized his childhood Christmases were much like Frankie’s and for him, even into old age, Christmas would always be a mixture of joy and sorrow. You see, his beloved younger brother, same age as Frankie, died just a few days before Christmas from one of those childhood illnesses which today probably would be wiped out with a dose of antibiotic. Frankie has a place in Patricia's family that will never be forgotten; young Bobbie has a similar place in my father's.
I believe fourth grade or fifth is the perfect age for this story. I know that many kids that age could read the book independently, although there are antiquated words that may be troublesome, but I believe that sharing this book with an adult is much more powerful. If you have family story time or can arrange one, consider this title. If you don’t have a child to share this with, find a copy of this Patrica Polacco story anyway and you be the child.