Readers’ Advisory: Family Traditions
Many people come together during the holiday season to share family traditions and memories. Dig deeper into the meaning of tradition with these book recommendations from Megan Schliesman of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
So Many Books: Ties That Bind
When is a rope more than a rope? When it is the heart of a story that ties one generation to the next. In Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book This Is the Rope, a child recounts how the worn, frayed rope she has grown up with is the same rope that her grandmother used to jump as a child in South Carolina.
It was also the rope that tethered the family’s belongings to the roof of a car when they left the South and the line for drying her infant mother’s freshly washed diapers in a northern big-city apartment. As her mother got older, she jumped rope with it, too. Now it is the rope that the child narrator jumps with, that her brothers play with and that holds up the sign at the family reunion, bringing generations together from both South and North.
Just as the rope in Woodson’s book is a touchstone for the child narrator, an object is at the center of a family tradition and a source of comfort and anticipation for young Eduardo in Gretchen Griffith’s picture book When Christmas Feels Like Home. Eduardo’s move from his unnamed Latin American homeland to the United States is a transition made easier by a few familiar things. Still, his new house doesn’t feel like home. His mother says it will once they put up the Nativity set that he carved with his grandfather, but that won’t happen until Christmas, which is a long time away.
Eduardo starts school and makes friends; trees change color, then turn bare as skeletons. Halloween brings carved, smiling pumpkins. With the first cold weather, Eduardo can see his breath. These and other child-friendly details mark the passage of time as Eduardo adjusts to a new home — and new seasons — in an upbeat look at the immigrant experience that still captures a sense of longing.
Traditions offer reassurance because they are predictable and constant. In the face of great change, Eduardo can look forward to something that will remain the same.
In this way, Eduardo is drawing on memory. So, too, are authors and illustrators when they create books for children drawn from their own family stories and traditions. In Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic, sisters Ginnie and Beth Lo recount a childhood Sunday drive in the Illinois countryside that leads to the discovery of soybeans.
Soybeans (mao dou) are one of the most important foods in China, but the girls, who were raised in the States, have never tasted them. Auntie Yang asks the bemused farmer if she can pick some, and soon she’s boiling the pods in salted water.
“Soybeans are the greatest discovery in America!” the young narrator exclaims after popping beans from the pod into her mouth.
That meal is the start of a family tradition that grows from year to year and soon includes members of the Chicago Chinese community, who travel to the countryside to get a taste of home. Eventually, the narrator — now a young woman — meets her aunts and uncles from China, who make the trip to participate in the picnic and, more important, to visit her mother and aunt, who have been longing to see their family for decades. The author and illustrator’s note is a brief photo essay about Auntie Yang and the soybean picnic tradition, which lasted for 40 years.
Author/illustrator Aaron Meshon grew up attending baseball games in both the United States and Japan. His picture book Take Me Out to the Yakyu compares baseball traditions in the 2 countries, as a child describes seeing a game at the stadium with his American Pop Pop and watching yakyu at the dome with his Japanese Ji Ji.
While pre-game anticipation and post-game satisfaction are universal, the other elements, from souvenirs and food (hot dogs and peanuts in the States, soba noodles and edamame in Japan) to audience cheers, are traditions distinctive to each locale.
The powerful connection among food, family, and stories features in other books, too. In Loretta Seto’s Mooncakes, a young Chinese-North American girl describes her family’s observance of the autumn moon festival, including the “mooncakes” they eat, the tea they drink and the traditional stories her parents tell.
In a picture book by Antonio Sacre, La Noche Buena, Nina is apprehensive about spending the Christmas holiday with her father’s relatives in Miami’s Little Havana. She misses snow and the familiar Christmas traditions of her mother’s family up north.
But over the course of 3 days, Nina helps prepare the food for la Noche Buena — Christmas Eve — listening to stories and becoming part of a family ritual that is comforting and inclusive.
The connections among a sense of belonging, ritual and tradition are deeply explored in Martha Brooks’s picture book Winter Moon Song. In it, a young rabbit questions why and how his community performs its annual Winter Moon Song chorus.
The little rabbit can’t stop thinking about his mother’s explanation that they sing the song “to lighten the darkest month of the year with a trail of magic.” But the chorus is performed each year in a grand indoor space: “The gleaming windows shut out the night. Candles flickered everywhere … The age-old song began. And when, one hour later, the audience applauded and nudged the old ones awake and then headed happily for the door, the song was done again for another year.”
Or was it? Out in the cold air, the little rabbit starts humming. Soon he is singing the song again, “as the young rabbit felt it should be, under the winter moon.” Others join in, including older rabbits who thought they had forgotten the words long ago.
“And when the song was over and everyone gazed up at the rabbit-in-the-moon, they all felt that they were not separate or lonely but part of one great rabbit family.”
Brooks’s lovely writing takes its time, offering lyrical, concrete descriptions and creating space for readers to think, just as the young rabbit did.
Where do the family traditions we love come from? What is their purpose, beyond the anticipation, familiarity and comfort we draw from them, beyond the memories? Most often it is to strengthen a sense of togetherness and the idea of family, however family is defined.