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More Than Turkey: 9 Thanksgiving Books to Foster Cultural Awareness and Gratitude

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Few things are as universal as food. Gathering to break bread and share comradery with family and friends is what Thanksgiving is all about. As a child I remember our extended family’s Thanksgiving menu taking shape weeks before the actual event and the anticipation of indulging in my favorite seasonal flavors. Once, when I was in third grade, we put on a play to showcase the harvest season. Though my memory of the actual performance may be foggy, I remember being so proud to dress up as a Native American, knowing that in my ancestry I had a great-great grandmother with Cherokee roots. And while I learned the name of the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the place where I grew up (the Goshute tribe mainly), there were (and still are) gaps in my knowledge of Indigeneous people.

Book cover of “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac featuring colorful illustrations of people
Book cover of “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac. | Miranda Rosbach

As we reconcile with anti-racism work, we have a tremendous opportunity to teach our children the things we weren’t taught. To fill knowledge gaps in order to create a more inclusive and understanding generation. The more we normalize reading books and interacting with people of all cultures and races the more we can show our children that diversity is something to celebrate. So rather than focusing on satiating our taste buds, perhaps this year we can expand our palette and take a few minutes to savor the stories and voices of our shared humanity. I hope this book list will be a great starting place for you and your family.

1. “Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table” (ages 4-8) Written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Sunday supper is a chance for family to gather around Aunt Mabel’s table. As the children and adults are seated together, Aunt Mabel begins her prayer. She blesses every dish that has been prepared, along with people (both far and near). The longer the prayer takes the colder the food gets until at last her exasperated family intervenes. This rhyming book features a diverse family with a humorous twist.

2. “Duck for Turkey Day” (ages 4-8) Written by Jacqueline Jules and illustrated by Kathryn Mitter

Tuyet is excited for the Thanksgiving holiday, but when she asks her mama about having a turkey for their upcoming feast, she is informed that her family will be having a duck. Troubled by this news and the idea that the “right” food for Thanksgiving is turkey, Tuyet counts her money to see if she has enough to purchase one at the Saigon Supermarket but comes up short. Back at school after the Thanksgiving holiday she is pleased to learn that many of her classmates also had something other than turkey to eat. A wonderful look at how one Vietnamese family celebrates a very American holiday.

3. “Give Thank You a Try” (ages 3-6)
Written by James Patterson and illustrated by various contributors

“Thank you” may be a simple statement, but it can often expand gratitude for everyday things, such assmiles, snow,  tickles and teachers. This recently published picture book features exuberant illustrations from a handful of notable children's illustrators and is a joy to read aloud.

4. “Giving Thanks” (ages 5-8)
Written by Jonathan London with paintings by Gregory Manchess

As a young boy and his father leave the house, the dad offers his thanks for nature’s gifts:from frogs and crickets that weave tiny stories near the lanky cattails, to wild mushrooms that smell like pumpkins and an unexpected glimpse of a bushy-tailed fox. While the boy feels embarrassed by his dad’s excessive vocalizations of gratitude, he explains that the habit of expressing thanks fosters a good feeling. This story is still as relevant today as it was when it was published nearly 20 years ago.

5. “Sharing the Bread: An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Story” (ages 3+)
Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry

“Sharing the Bread: An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Story” written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry book cover featuring an illustration of a family holding dishes of food. The book is sitting on top of fall leaves.
“Sharing the Bread: An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Story” written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry book cover.

Enter a rustic farmhouse with a wood-burning stove, a father and mother, brother and sister, each one an integral part of preparing a family feast. Through basting, boiling and baking, the tantalizing scents of mashed potatoes and fresh cider swirl through the air. At last the family gathers to share their love-filled Thanksgiving spread. An absolute favorite in our home.

6. “Stolen Words” (ages 5-8)
Written by Melanie Florence and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

A young girl dances her way home from school but confronts cognitive dissonance when she asks her grandfather how to say something in Cree. How to explain being taken away from his mother and family as a child? How to explain how white men took his native tongue? The grandfather becomes emotional as he tries to recount his past. Told with gentleness the story shows us pieces of a shared family history and an unexpected hope of relearning a forgotten language through a well-worn paperback. A powerful conversation starter for children.

7. “The Goat in the Rug” (ages 4-8)
Written by Charles L. Blood and Martin Link; illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker

Geraldine, the goat, lives with her Navajo weaver friend Glenmae. On a warm sunny afternoon Geraldine’s wool is clipped off in long strands, then washed with a soapy lather made from the yucca plant. After the wool is dried, pulled, dyed and turned to yarn the master weaver creates an original rug on her oversize loom. Based on a true story, this vintage classic is definitely worth tracking down.

8. “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” (ages 4-8)
Written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac

“Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude.” This is a reflection that lasts throughout the year (not just at Thanksgiving). From the beginning of the Cherokee New Year (which starts each fall) and through the various seasons, we follow a Cherokee Nation and learn about the sacrifices of people past and the legacy of the Cherokee culture that still exists today. The backmatter includes definitions and an author’s note, making this an outstanding book for young (and old) readers alike.

9. “We Are Water Protectors” (ages 4-8)
Written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade

A young girl learns about water from an elderly relative; she learns of its life and power and understands how its life force runs through her veins. However, a black snake looms, threatening the sanctity of water and destroying the land. Together, Indigeneous peoples rally and fight against pipelines and other issues facing the planet’s stewards. “We stand with our songs and our drums. We are still here.” Though it’s not specifically a Thanksgiving or gratitude book, I couldn’t leave this breathtaking 2020 publication off this list.

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