Photo: Stratford School

For many, Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday—in part because it is relatively less commercial than many holidays, but more so, because of its focus on rituals that bring families together and inspire a bit of introspection. Part of the Thanksgiving tradition is joining hands around the table and sharing what—or whom—we are thankful for. Social skills are built as even the youngest members of the family are encouraged to consider their blessings, express their gratitude, and hear the same from others. This ritual builds and reinforces positive cultural norms in an entirely natural and authentic setting.  

Another entirely authentic path to introspection that leads to increased empathy and feelings of gratitude is by harnessing the power of stories—stories of characters who model exemplary behavior or who themselves are introspective. Stories “show” rather than “tell,” grounding abstract concepts like gratitude and perseverance in examples of real people who rise above adversity, benefit from the generosity of others, discover beauty in places or cultures unlike their own, or discover the pleasure of even small acts of generosity. Such are the stories we have recommended for reading this long Thanksgiving weekend. The book selection is intended for children from kindergarten through middle school, but you might enjoy them as well. Conversations with children about these stories can extend the exercise of “giving thanks” beyond Thursday’s holiday dinner.

Here is a list of some of our favorites:

Grades Kinder to Second

When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree by Jamie L.B. Deenihan, Illustrated by Lorraine Rocha
An upbeat take on the old fable, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Charming, bright illustrations of a young girl who realizes by the end of the story that material possessions aren’t nearly as special as family, community, and the spirit of giving. Look for the book’s companion by the same author/illustrator team When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox.

Thank You, Omu by Oge Mora
Mixed-media collage art along with patterned papers and book clippings bring this story of sharing to life. The scrumptious scent of grandmotherly Omu’s stew wafts out her apartment window. A little boy inquires after the delicious smell, followed by a police officer and more until Omu’s generosity means that she has no stew left for dinner. But everyone returns, this time to share new ingredients for stew. The little boy tells her “Don’t worry, Omu. We are not here to ask…We are here to give.” The book speaks to the importance of kindness and not taking others for granted. Read the book together, then spend time as a family creating your own version of Omu’s stew!

Grades 3-4

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares
In this beautifully illustrated picture book, we meet Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant mathematician from early 1900’s India who grew up with a misunderstood passion for numbers. His story is especially compelling because when he was young, one hundred years ago, the world was big and communications were slow. “Back then, if you had an idea—even a rare and wonderful idea—on one side of the world, people on the other side might never know.” Ramanujan found it difficult to connect with other mathematicians so that he could continue to learn and work with scholars. He had to set out and explore the world, and eventually, through his persistence and patience, found Cambridge. His ideas have helped shape areas of science that were not even discovered in his lifetime: computers, black holes, and string theory.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers, Illustrated by Luke Flowers
This GoodReads Choice—Best Picture Book of 2019 will help any child feel thankful to be alive and appreciate the world. Rogers sang many of these poems on his PBS show, but the words are so meaningful as mini-lessons about figuring out life as a child. Flowers’ illustrations are energetic and feature characters from the iconic television show as well as vignettes of young children. After reading this book together, consider watching the show or the Tom Hanks movie as a family to learn more about Mr. Rogers.

Grades 5-8

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Newbery Medalist Park explores prejudice on the American frontier in this sensitively told story about a multiracial girl in 1880’s Dakota Territory. Great for fans of the Little House on the Prairie series who want to read about a different perspective. The detailed description of daily frontier life will leave young readers thankful for what they have. After reading this together, consider researching customs of the Lakota tribe, as discussed by the author in her note at the end of the book.

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
In this fantasy inspired by Navajo legends, the main character, Nizhoni, discovers that she has powers that other middle schoolers don’t have. Reading about other cultures’ mythologies is a way to expand children’s imagination, empathy, and offer a new way of seeing their world. This is a stunning tale of adventure and family that brings the history and stories of the Navajo people to a contemporary setting, with characters who feel real. There is a glossary of Navajo terms as well as a note from the author to keep readers interested and ready to research more! Part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint of books for middle-grade readers, each one in the series draws from mythology and folklore.