After burning dinner, an elderly couple, Ann and Ed, decide to go to the New World Cafe for Thanksgiving. Finding the door open when they arrive, they see tables decorated not just with Pilgrims and Native Americans but also with figurines of what appear to be Russian dancers. Readers should suspect at this point that the restaurant is not, in fact, open for business.
The cafe owners, who are Russian immigrants, are wondering who has crashed their family party. Grandmother, though, generously welcomes the strangers, and they all go on to share songs, dances, and stories, along with the big dinner. As Ann and Ed leave, Papa tries to close the door, but finds a potato propping it open: “In old country,” Grandmother says, “Thanksgiving door is like happy heart, opened up big and wide. Potato good for that.”
Debby Atwell’s bright, folkloric illustrations add to the fun of this unusual Thanksgiving story, as she spices it with such details as iconic Russian onion domes in a picture in the restaurant, the starched-clean scarves on the women, and the telling cover image of Grandmother pushing the potato under the door. For ages 6 to 8, The Thanksgiving Door is a quiet treat to savor.
For rousing nonfiction, turn to Melissa Sweet’s fascinating Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade.
Tony Sarg was already famous for his mechanical marionettes that attracted hordes of shoppers who came to gaze at Macy’s “Wondertown” windows. What more could the department store do to highlight the holiday?
The author points out that many of Macy’s workers were, like Tony, immigrants, who “missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets.” Why shouldn’t Macy’s put on a parade for their employees? And who would be more perfect for the job than Tony Sarg?
The first parade was a dazzler: a procession winding its way from Harlem to Herald Square, resembling a European street carnival, with horse-drawn floats and even real bears, elephants, and camels from Central Park Zoo. That first parade was so successful, the store decided this was the beginning of a new Thanksgiving Day ritual.
The wild animals, though, caused concerns, and for the 1928 parade, Macy’s asked Tony to come up with a better alternative. Mulling over a vast range of puppets, Sarg fixed on the idea of an Indonesian rod puppet from his own toy collection. Voila! The parade would never be the same. “Part puppet, part balloon, the air-filled rubber bags wobbled down the avenues, propped up by wooden sticks.”
Melissa Sweet has infused every page of her award-winning picture book with her own inventive illustrations that show off her clever snipping and flipping and sketching. Beginning with end papers featuring vintage pages of The Tony Sarg Marionette Book and finishing with a dramatic 1933 New York Times ad (“HERE COMES THE PARADE!! IT’S IMMENSE! IT’S COLOSSAL! COME A-RUNNING!!), the author/illustrator has created a brief biography that soars with color and energy. Highly recommended for ages 7 to 10.
Another exceptional nonfiction book, this one for ages 9 to 12, is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, by Catherine O’Neill Grace in cooperation with the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Sharp, full-color photos of re-enactors in period costumes help children understand some of the roots of the holiday. You’ll find no pumpkin pie, no silver buckles in this Thanksgiving account. You will, however, discover both sides of the story of how 52 English colonists came to celebrate their first harvest with 90 men of the Wampanoag tribe, in the town we now call Plymouth.