Rebecca is another book lover I’ve “met” from Instagram. Her Instagram feed is full of great books! Be sure to follow her!
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Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent some time pilfering through my parents’ picture book collection and came across a lost but not forgotten influence on my childhood moral compass. Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story, by Dick Gackenbach, may have been one of the first books to move me to tears. It was originally published in 1974 by Houghton Mifflin Company, but I had a slim 1980’s Weekly Reader paperback edition. The premise is simple. Claude receives three presents from his owners—a pillow, a blanket, and a toy mouse. He’s just snuggling into his new blanket and pillow when along comes Bummer, a homeless dog. Claude begins by showing off his presents to Bummer, only to discover that Bummer has never seen or had anything like them. One by one, Claude gives away his gifts to Bummer before running home for his best present: the love of his family.
When I first read Claude the Dog as a child living in a rural area, obvious homelessness, either human or canine, wasn’t something for which I had much context. But my own children are growing up in a dense neighborhood of a big city, and homelessness is increasingly obvious them. My oldest notices the men and women standing with signs at street corners or sitting on busy sidewalks with all their possessions, and she has begun to ask more pointed questions. Child development specialist, Betsy Brown Braun offers some helpful talking points for addressing homelessness with kids. She adds that sometimes the hardest part for a child to understand may be why homeless people often don’t have friends or family who can help them.
In addition to Braun’s wise words, I would also add that picture books can open a window of understanding for children grappling with difficult topics including but of course not limited to homelessness. As for myself, no amount of parental preaching about gratitude and “the true meaning of Christmas” could have pierced my selfish, Santa-obsessed little heart quite like the story of Claude and Bummer. Amen for the bookish miracle of empathy! And so I’m reminded that while I craft my children’s December reading around the fun of receiving and the excitement of anticipation, I also need to include books about sacrifice and compassion.
Although Claude is now out of print, there are other picture books predicated on similar issues—most recently The Christmas Eve Tree written by Delia Huddy and Illustrated by Emily Sutton. In this case, a spindly little tree, ill-planted from the start, is given to a homeless boy to enjoy on Christmas Eve. Later, the tree finds second life when planted in a neighborhood park where it grows and flourishes. The final page shows the boy, many years on, smiling at the tree and also clearly flourishing. While it’s certainly important to be honest with children about the realities of homelessness, I love that The Christmas Eve Tree provides hope of something better even while not skirting the darker details along the way.
Of course we can also help our children turn their compassion into action. At this time of year in particular homeless shelters and food pantries are stocking their supplies for winter and collecting cold weather gear for those most vulnerable to extreme temperatures. Contact a local shelter and simply ask what they need. You might be surprised by what they say and how eager your kids are to help.
Rebecca Schisler is a recovering academic and English instructor turned stay-at-home mom of two girls in St. Louis, MO. She reviews their favorite picture books on Instagram as @snowyowlreads.