Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving with the kids--where are the books?

by John

As Thanksgiving rolls around this week, I’m reminded of one of the more confounding paradoxes of my previous career as a children’s book editor: that despite the natural opportunity for kids’ books to tie into the holiday, I could never, ever get a Thanksgiving title to work.

After all, Thanksgiving seems like an easy sell. The story of the Pilgrims makes a perfect subject for picture books, as do the themes of thankfulness, family, and togetherness that Thanksgiving celebrates. You’d think, too, that parents would need a book for the holiday, not only to explain things to toddlers, but to keep them seated and quiet for five minutes! And from the Macy’s parade to Black Friday, Thanksgiving has always been about buying stuffso why not books?

Yet, despite multiple attempts to publish books on Thanksgiving and the annual effort to market books for the holiday, I never saw a Thanksgiving book that sold really well. Instead, the best performers seemed to skirt the holiday and focus more on the general season, like Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona’s Harvest or Richard Michelson’s and Mary Azarian’s Tuttle’s Red Barn.

So, if anyone has any ideas why these books don’t work, or better yet, how to make a Thanksgiving book a success, I’d love to know. Because I’d like to think that for the most American of holidays, there must be a successful way to share it through a book. Any thoughts?


  1. My two favorite Thanksgiving books are:
    An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily McCully about spending Thanksgiving with Billy the Kid, and Laurie Halse Anderson's Thank you, Sarah (about Sarah Hale who saved Thanksgiving.) I don't know how to make them sell better, but these should, because I love them so much. ;)
    My guess is that Thanksgiving stories just aren't as atmospheric and evocative as Halloween or Christmas. As a nation, I think a lot of Thanksgiving is about making family happy - going from one meal to another, juggling inlaws, and there just isn't a lot of time to pause and wonder during the holiday the same way there is for Christmas, or to have fun on that cusp of being frightened like at Halloween. My guess would be that Easter books don't sell that well, either.

  2. You called Thanksgiving "the most American of holidays," which made me wonder about books about that other very American holiday, the Fourth of July. Do kids books about that holiday sell? If so, what can we learn from those sales to apply to Thanksgiving books?

    I tend to agree that Christmas and Halloween are easier sells and more compelling emotionally and atmospherically, perhaps because there is more TV/movie coverage aimed at children for these holidays.

    Thanksgiving may be about family, but it has never been about gifts in my family, nor is it a specifically "child-centric" holiday. It has always been a grown-up holiday. And, unfotunately, history in the US is often seen as a boring, dull topic.

  3. At the end of the day, no matter how much I talk about the concept of gratitude with my kids, the main symbol of Thanksgiving is still a turkey. My kids think turkey is okay to eat, but it's nothing compared to a holiday involving candy or presents.

    If a bookstore has a book with a pilgrim or turkey on it next to a book with Santa on the cover, I know which one my son will pick--unless the turkey is wielding a light saber and dueling Duck Vader. Happy Thanksgiving! :)

  4. A light-saber-wielding, Duck-Vader-dueling turkey = Awesome, Kristi Helvig! Now, go write it--my boys would go nuts!

    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

  5. Hey folks, thanks for the comments. That's a great question about the 4th of July--indeed, it's also a tough holiday for book sales. It seems like patriotic stories don't need to be tied to holiday promotions to succeed--witness Obama's new book. On the other hand, Easter is a big picture book holiday, perhaps because there's more gift giving involved. In fact, Jan Brett had one of her all-time bestseller this year with THE EASTER EGG, and for Jan that's saying a lot!

  6. Dude,
    I am so with you on the Thanksgiving books issue. What's up with that? I have ransacked bookstores and libraries from LA to NY year after year for my brood of four to get into the spirit of my favorite holiday and have found only seriously boring, wordy tales of The Mayflower. With such a great tale of rampant murder, theft, interlopers and mystical spirits, you'd think we'd be able to come up with something steamy. Hey, what if everyone involved were Vegan? Would that have changed the outcome of our country? A what if...?