Dec 21, 2013

The True Value of Gifts

With the holiday celebrations comes gift-giving. In the last post I urged giving books, and I still do.

Now I'm feeling compelled to discuss the gifting process itself. In this affluent country (and many others), there exists a wide range of  economic levels. Many in the "have not" category rely entirely on the kindness of strangers to have a decent meal or a meager gift under the tree. That reality offers a learning opportunity for kids, especially those who take their holiday gifts as a given, literally and figuratively.

Beyond our own marginalized neighbors, though, there are children in refugee camps and war zones who face a daily struggle for survival with barely subsistence resources. Holidays in such settings are marked, if at all, in spirit rather than in practice.

Dragonfly Books, paperback, 1988
Alfred A. Knopf, 1986
An ideal book to share such an experience is A NEW COAT FOR ANNA, written by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Anita Lobel. I've loved this book, based on a true story of post-WWII survivors, since it was first published. As Christmas approaches I've thought about it often because it reminds me of the circumstances facing characters in my forthcoming middle grade historical fiction release set in Norway during the German occupation. Bartering and making-do were necessary for survival, but reserving assets for even harder times to come also played a role.
In this picture book Anna and her mother have survived the war years intact physically, but with few worldly goods or resources. Anita Lobel's opening spreads reveal Anna in her little blue coat, then one page turn shows her several years later, wearing the same now-too-small and badly tattered coat amid the refugees and relics of her city. The story reveals, in words and images, that Anna and her mother arrived at the end of war considerably more intact than many others, yet unable to get needed supplies, including food. It's her mother's goal to return a degree of normalcy to Anna's life in the form of a new red coat that fits.

Anna's mother is a clever woman. Now that war is over she decides to use her few reserved valuables to get Anna that coat. Her bargains and promises extend throughout a full year and the entire community: a watch traded for wool (with months of waiting for the wool to grow and be sheared), a lamp traded for spinning (to be done in warmer weather), the yarn dyed with berries (harvested later in summer), a necklace traded for weaving wool cloth, then a teapot traded to the tailor.

This community outreach effort spans a year and provides an excuse to invite all involved to a Christmas gathering that features generous servings of  gratitude and Christmas cake. All agree it is the best Christmas in memory. Anna even visits the sheep to thank them for their contributions. The story is permeated with patience, participation, and appreciation of craft and contributions without even a whiff of sentimentality. 

Other review quotes include:
"Thought-provoking and informative" (Booklist, starred review)
"...will be understood and cherished by all ages" (School Library Journal)
"…hardship gives life to hope" (The Los Angeles Times)
"Lobel's illustrations-- rich, warm, and bright as the new coat itself-- bring the story to life." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Puffin Paperbacks, 2008

Another holiday story featuring war survivors is Patricia Polacco's CHRISTMAS TAPESTRY. In this case the story is a continent away from Europe and a generation or more later, but it, too, deals with the ravages and losses of war, the meager items salvaged by refugees, and the nature of giving and gratitude. 

Whatever stories are shared at this time of year, in picture books or from personal experience, my hope is that they will convey a sense of recognition of those who make the items, those who bring them to us, and the spirit in which gifts are given and appreciated. 

1 comment:

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.