As someone who writes about children’s literature who is also a parent, I try to be careful about publicly evaluating books from the point of view of a mother. It’s not at all helpful, for instance, for me to say that my children love a book. I need to be able to tell you, as someone who has studied children’s literature in an academic way, why the book works (or doesn’t). But I’m breaking the rules today to tell you about a book I like, and I’m going to do so from my stance as both a professional and a parent. Just because.
The grand dame of children’s literature, Katherine Paterson, had the smart idea to create a picture book anthology called Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving, released by Chronicle Books in October. I can’t think of a better book to be writing about this week, as many people gather with family and friends to celebrate the holidays.
What Paterson has done is gathered poetry, prose, prayers and praise songs all centered upon the theme of gratitude. Her fans will be happy to know that she opens each section of the book (“Gather Around the Table,” “A Celebration of Life,” “The Spirit Within,” and “Circle of Community”) with her own prose—some thoughts on her own life, her own gratitude and her own memories. Each of these pieces from her is intimate and fine-tuned. In one, she writes about how peeling an orange brings to mind her Japanese friend’s story about hunger and poverty and how it leads her to an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the food on her table. In another, she writes about patiently watching a cicada break from its shell with her son and how it constituted a “wake of wonder.”
Her selections elsewhere in the book come from a wide variety of traditions and religions. There are a lot of entries based on Christian writings of one sort or another, but there is also an Islamic prayer. There are Native American proverbs and blessings, words from Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, and much more. The poetry entries range from traditional (Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman) to more contemporary (E. E. Cummings and Wendell Berry). There is an Inuit song; the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts”; and the closing portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (So, that’s not an example of a praise song per se, but it includes song lyrics, and hoo boy, if you listen to the recording, you may as well call it a song, given King’s dramatic, rhythmic delivery.) Paterson even extends way back to such brilliant minds as Hildegard of Bingen, circa 1150; Saint Francis of Assisi, circa 1220; and Julian of Norwich, circa 1400.
So, here’s where I write about, as a parent, sharing this book with my own children. I want to hug the book’s very neck for even existing. Sure, there’s no narrative here, and my youngest (age 8) got squirmy as we read, but they still listened. And we talked and talked some more about what we read, as well as about Paterson’s point as she opens the book. She writes about her gratitude for all the good that’s occurred in her long life. (If I’m doing my math correctly, Paterson is 81 years old this year.) But she also writes: “[M]y childhood blessing reminds me to be thankful for everything—not just those occasions when I am happy, but the hard times—the disappointments, failures, and losses that brought me to a new place where I could grow in wisdom and compassion and, yes, real joy.”
After all, she notes, “joy is the twin sister of gratitude.” So, what we have here in this rich book is a tribute to both things.
And my own daughters might not fully understand all of this yet, but I believe they’re at an age when they can consider this notion of how the hard times can manage to lead to a path of gratitude.
We’re not a family who goes to church either, so I appreciate the opportunity this book provides to expose my children to the ways various traditions and religions look at this topic.
And this. Once we saw this, I gave it repeated readings. It’s from Christian theologian John Wesley. I stopped in our reading of Paterson’s book to emphasize this and told my daughters (till I’m sure they were tired of hearing it) that it’d be wise for this to guide their lives:
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.
Chronicle has once again paired Paterson here with illustrator Pamela Dalton, whose intricate scissor-cut art—Scherenschnitte, whose roots are in 16th-century Germany and Switzerland—adorns the book. Some are challenging to see, cream-colored illustrations on cream-colored pages, but there are some spreads with welcome color. On one, we read Wendell Berry’s words about the “thrusting branches” and “blessed trees.” And here Dalton has finely-cut trees on the left and right of the text, their green branches meeting overhead. It is lovely.
A stirring read, particularly during the holidays, the time of year during which we explicitly give thanks.
GIVING THANKS: POEMS, PRAYERS, AND PRAISE SONGS OF THANKSGIVING. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Pamela Dalton and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.