I first purchased this book, The First Thanksgiving, when my oldest children were quite young, and it is still a favorite we read again together each year. Although beautifully and simply told, it is not a sugar-coated version of this pilgrimage. Jean Craighead George, the author of two more favorite children’s books Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain, gives an honest and artful voice to the hardships endured both by the pilgrims and the Native American tribes in this read. Gently, she introduces more complex topics into the story of this feast, such as the freedom of religion, the freedom of a person (European slave trade), the Plague, life aboard a transatlantic ship, establishing agricultural life, and of course Squanto’s peaceful help in these settlements–giving more context to this intermingled, multi-day feast we now call Thanksgiving.
The First Thanksgiving is a broad picture of this bit of history more than anything, an introduction to early colonial America, a springboard for other reading and learning and conversation. As it is a picture book, the illustrations carry their own part of the story as well–gorgeous, emotional paintings of dark stormy seas, lonely Squanto in the colorful woods, the Mayflower, and the golden harvest and feast to name a few. They are excellent fodder for budding artists to copy.
Naturally, we cannot discuss every topic thoroughly each year. This is the joy of returning to this window in American history again annually. When my children were quite young, I may have simply read the story aloud while they played on the floor around me. Some years we have added a project, and other years, we may have simply discussed it. As my children and their context for history grow, our discussions do, too. This is one of my favorite parts of parenting.
This year, as we are re-reading this story together, each is doing their own project with it. One of my children created simple models of the pilgrim ships using clay, small craft sticks, and paper. While the other three illustrated from the book or from their own imagination with pencil or watercolors.
I am adding more writing this year, too. The older boys will write a summary paper, possibly including a bit from other history readings since we’ve been studying some early American history this fall. My oldest daughter, who is still learning about paragraphing and summarizing, will narrate the story to me, which I will write down, and she will copy on her own. My youngest, who is still an early writer, will copy one to two sentences from the story itself. Although the specifics may vary year to year, sharing the origin of Thanksgiving with my children during this season helps deepen both our understanding and gratitude.