October 22, 2015


Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler. Harper. $17.99

Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $4.99.

     When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the optimistic saying goes – or, in the case of Thanksgiving, when life gives you a whole series of food-related setbacks, make liverwurst sandwiches. That is what the Tappleton family ends up doing in Eileen Spinelli’s deliciously silly Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’, a book that is as amusing and warmhearted today as when it was first published in 1982. The new revised edition – thankfully not too much revised – flies in the face of today’s notion of Thanksgiving as a secular and increasingly commercial holiday: it is fully family-focused and ends with a nonsectarian prayer that fits the holiday wonderfully and helps turn disappointment into delight. Most of the book is about the disappointment, but everything is told with such a light touch – and illustrated so comfortingly by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, who did the original 1982 illustrations and then created new ones a decade later – that young readers will know from the start that all will eventually turn out just fine. Spinelli spins a story of calamity after calamity: startled by the early-morning arrival of the milkman (parents may have to explain to today’s children what a milkman is, or was), Mrs. Tappleton drops the turkey she is about to start preparing, and it bounces down the steps of the house, then slides on the ice outdoors all the way to a nearby pond – where it sinks. Concealing the disaster from Mr. Tappleton, Mrs. Tappleton sends him off to buy the traditional pies, but there is such a long line at the bakery that he decides to stop for coffee – and by the time he gets back to the shop, all the pies are gone. So, unsure what to do, he brings home empty boxes. Similar holiday disasters befall the kids: Kenny cannot make the salad because he fed all the vegetables to rabbits at school, and Jenny gets distracted by a phone call (on a corded phone, of course) while purĂ©eing the potatoes in the blender, resulting in an all-over-the-kitchen mess that she barely manages to clean up before the Tappleton parents arrive home after picking up the rest of the family members: Uncle Fritz, Grandmother and Grandfather. Now what? One by one, the mishaps are revealed, with everyone becoming increasingly unhappy – and increasingly hungry – as it turns out there is no special holiday food in the house at all. It takes the tradition of Grandmother’s Thanksgiving prayer to make everything all right again: she reminds everybody that “we’re together,/ That’s what matters –/ Not what’s served upon the platters.” And so begins a search for any food that may be in the refrigerator and cupboards, which is how the Tappleton Thanksgiving dinner turns out to involve liverwurst, cheese, pickles and applesauce. Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ is quaint in some ways and certainly a tad dated in others, but explanations of the elements that may be unfamiliar to 21st-century kids are very much worthwhile, since they will give today’s children a perspective on the family-focused elements of Thanksgiving that have tended to fall by the wayside far too often in the last few years.

     Family focus is important in Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving as well. But here readers get an up-to-date story that nevertheless retains some timeless qualities (and comes with a page of 20 stickers, just for extra fun). This too is a tale in which things go wrong, but not primarily with food. Instead, Little Critter manages to get mixed up and messed up in several ways, although – as always in Mayer’s books – everything turns out just fine at the end. In the Thanksgiving play, for example, Little Critter forgets his lines (he is dressed as a turkey and is supposed to say “gobble, gobble”), so he bursts out in song instead, embarrassing the rest of the cast (if not himself). At the Thanksgiving Day Parade, he and his friends are marching in their costumes from the play, but Little Critter gets tired, so he climbs onto a float and disrupts that part of the parade: “‘Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!’ I called. They didn’t look too happy.” A policeman gets him off the float, and the family is not in the best of moods afterwards. Later, during a shopping trip, Little Critter drops the turkey and spills the cranberries. But on Thanksgiving Day itself, he helps with the cooking (as well as he can) and then goes with the family to dinner at the community center. “Everyone from town was there. …They invited all the critters who couldn’t have a nice dinner. That way everyone could enjoy it together.” It is that message, of inclusiveness and concern for those less fortunate, is the one that makes everything all right in Little Critter’s special Thanksgiving – and can become a discussion point for a good parent-child talk about the meaning of the holiday beyond food, football and family festivities.

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