Archive for November 30th, 2010

November 30, 2010


Patricia Polacco was one of the first authors I was introduced to during my student teaching.  Her picture books were popular with elementary teachers and the young students they taught.  This one in particular stole my heart.  Many of Polacco’s books center around the beautiful theme of multi-cultural relationships between Jews and non-Jews.  In this book, the relationship is between a Jewish family and their Christian neighbors and the story grabs the reader immediately with the beautiful, colorful illustrations, and the kid-friendly setting of the fabulous winter holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas.

Title: The Trees of the Dancing Goats
Author/llustrator: Patricia Polacco
: Picture Book
Age: 3 – 10 (this is a text-heavy picture book)

Summary and Review:

The main character is a young Jewish girl who lives with her family on a farm.  Her family is preparing for their annual Hanukkah celebration—dipping candles by hand and making gifts for each other.  When the girl goes out to a neighbor’s house, she discovers that many of the families in her town have been stricken with scarlet fever, and her family realizes they won’t be well enough to celebrate their holiday of Christmas.  Then they come up with a plan—they chop down small trees and decorate them with the toys that were made for their own Hanukkah presents.  They sneak into each neighbor’s house at night and deliver the decorated trees, spreading their own Hanukkah cheer in the form of the Christmas spirit.  Later, when their neighbors recover, they are thanked extensively, and presented with a beautiful handmade menorah featuring some of the toy animals that had earlier decorated the trees.

The book isn’t preachy—it is simply a beautiful story about beautiful people, or more accurately perhaps, people with beautiful hearts.  While the issues are complex—multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and even the terrible diseases we are lucky now to live without–the story is a story for kids and is told as such.  The holiday season makes it one that every kid will enjoy reading about, and the warmth of a family adding light and love to the dark winter is tangible with every magnificent drawing.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

This book helps introduce children to other people’s religions.  It shows how two different families can enjoy two different holidays and still be friends.  It shows how there is nothing wrong with a Jewish family who helps a Christian family celebrate Christmas and vice-versa.  It shows how a dark, illness-filled winter is made better by the love that is shared between people, even (or especially?) people from different backgrounds.

Talking to your children about the holiday (or holidays) you as a family celebrate.  Why do you celebrate that holiday and what are you being thankful for as you do?  Then talk to your children about the fact that not everyone celebrates the same holidays and introduce them to other ideas.  You can stick to the two in this book or expand into other cultures as well, choosing some library books or internet sites to help you explain.  Holidays make a great way to talk to kids about religious differences because holidays are tangible, fun events that kids can really relate to and understand.  It might be too early to start talking about the difference between the Old and New Testaments, but it’s not too early to talk about Christmas trees and dreidels, Christmas cookies and potato latkes.

One activity that elementary students would enjoy is a pairing of the two holidays.  For example, they could decorate two pieces of paper with stickers or drawings—one that shows Christmas things and one that shows Hanukkah things.  They could go further and match them–what is a typical Christmas food versus a typical Hanukkah food?  What is a typical Christmas decoration versus a typical Hanukkah decoration?  If they have a friend who celebrates a different holiday than them, the activity could be made even more meaningful as each child teaches the other about what is done in their own family.

I believe so firmly and deeply that it is never too early to talk to your kids about differences.  People don’t hesitate to take a child to church or synagogue and they shouldn’t hesitate to teach that same child about the myriad ways that others worship their own God or gods.  Just think about everything that’s happened in the world lately and ask yourself how much of it could be avoided if religions were not just about believing, but about believing in others’ right to believe as well.  Personally, I “found” religion later in life, and I believe that it’s my responsibility, as a religious person raising children in the context of religion, to teach tolerance as well.