Telling Family Histories in Picture Books
Everyone has their favorite tales of family histories and traditions, and one of mine is about something that we always did before opening presents on Christmas Eve.
Like most kids, my sisters and I were very excited to open our presents. We usually did it after dinner, and after the dishes were done, and after Dad finished his bath. And then—we had to drive to town and look at the Christmas lights. Our town of Baldwin, Wisconsin, wasn’t very big, but I swear we saw every light that was up. The longer Dad drove, the more excited we would get. And every year, just as we thought we had seen them all, Dad would say, “I don’t think we’ve been here yet!” and turn down another street. My sisters and I would roll our eyes and groan inwardly. I really don’t remember much of what I got for Christmas as a kid, but I do remember the anticipation!
Each of these picture books tells about a family’s history and can be used to inspire students to find out about the lives of their own parents and grandparents.
This book is inspired by the friend of the author, whose family lived in China during the Cultural Revolution. A little boy and his father love to fly kites together in the city. When his father is sent to a labor camp, the boy is sent to a nearby village to live with a farmer. At first his father comes to visit every weekend, but one day he sadly says he will not be able to come for a while. But—they can still “talk” to each other with their kites: the boy will fly his red kite every morning, and his father will fly a blue kite every evening. They will see the kites and know they are thinking of each other. Bad times are ahead, and the father is sent farther away. But the boy continues to fly both kites every day. The themes of family, Chinese history, and world cultures make this a versatile picture book.
A little girl and her family leave their old home in the city to build a new house in the country. While the parents are building the house from scratch—most of it by themselves—the family will be living in a small trailer onsite. The little girl tells the story of the process as it starts with reading the blueprints, having experts hook up water and electricity, and setting up the foundation. Readers will be fascinated by the trucks and tools used at the construction site. The house slowly changes as the seasons pass—and the mom slowly changes, too! By the time the baby is born, the house is ready. The book is based on the real-life experience of the author’s parents, told from his older sister’s point of view.
A young girl visits her great-grandfather for the first time, and to break the ice he asks her to pick anything in his room full of collections and he will tell her a story about it. She brings to him a cigar box full of small matchboxes. In each matchbox is a small item that the old man had saved from his childhood in Italy, his family’s immigration to the United States, and his life in America. This was his diary, since no one in his family knew how to read and write. On her way home, the five-year-old starts her own unwritten diary. This book is great to use in talking about family histories and can inspire kids to start their own diaries—with or without words.
I tried to continue the Christmas light tradition when I became a mom, but my boys didn’t keep their groans and impatience to themselves. Maybe when they’re older, they will tell me how much they appreciated it. Maybe.
I’m not counting on it.