While every school employee deserves a break this holiday season, perhaps none are in greater-than-usual need of respite than school librarians.
Caught in the politically charged crossfires of book censorship that has ratcheted up significantly this year, librarians in some public schools have been facing bans—with more than 1,500 titles targeted, according to freedom of speech advocacy organizations. The holiday season can further fuel controversy for school librarians, with debate swirling around which holidays to plug in book displays and to what extent.
Against this backdrop, Education Week interviewed three public school librarians: Sonya Kannam, librarian at Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter school in Baltimore; K.C. Boyd, librarian at Washington, D.C.’s Jefferson Academy and the 2022 School Library Journal’s School Librarian of the Year; and Nicole Midura, librarian at Barclay Brook Elementary School in Monroe Township, New Jersey.
Each librarian said they have gotten full support from their administration and autonomy in selecting holiday-themed books for their students this year. They also pointed to a growing selection of books they share with students this time of year in their respective libraries. Find out some of these school librarians’ top picks and more.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
What are some popular holiday-themed books or topics teachers are requesting to share with their students this year?
Kannam: Teachers are requesting a diverse selection of books to expose and celebrate with their students the different holidays that our students’ families chose to celebrate. Recently, many teachers are asking for books about Diwali, and we have built up that collection in our library. Current popular holiday books in our school library include these(there are many others):
Christmas Parade by Sandra Boynton; Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the U.S.-Mexican Border by Mitali Perkins; A Pinata in a Pine Tree: A Latina Twelve Days of Christmas by Pat Mora; The Sound of Kwanzaa by Dimitrea Tokunbo; Latkes and Applesauce by Fran Manushkin; Pete the Cat Saves Christmas by Eric Litwin, James Dean, and Kimberly Dean.
Boyd: My teachers are seeking stories that embrace all cultures and backgrounds that are based on the students that we serve.
Midura: This refers to all holidays throughout the year:
Dear Santasaurus by Stacey McAnulty and Jef Kaminsky; Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed—always a classic and in demand; Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel and Trina Schart Hyman; Maccabee!: The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley and David Harrington; Turkey Claus by Wendi J Silvano; The Story of Divaali by Verma Jatinder; Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi.
Have selections changed in recent years? How and why?
Kannam: There is a trend in the last decade to have a more diverse collection of books on a variety of holidays. Overtly religious books have not been in the collection for at least 15 years.
Boyd: There has been an increase in the request for more diversified materials. Teachers are being more intentional in supporting their students.
Midura: I’m constantly trying to bulk up my religions/cultures section. As a PK-2 librarian, I feel that this is the time when children are most enthusiastic and not embarrassed to celebrate their heritage and culture. I despise the word tolerance. I want my kiddos to really know each other and to appreciate and love the differences among their classmates. I believe that this is what moves us beyond tolerance and into acceptance!
Does your district/school deem any holiday-related books ‘off-limits?’
Kannam: No, the district and our school have taken, in my opinion, a very balanced approach that encourages displays and access to books—whether through student self-selection or teacher read-alouds—to represent various holidays.
Boyd: Not at all! The District of Columbia Public Schools is an anti-racist district.
Midura: No. I fearlessly teach everything. I carefully explain to my students that if you are a member of the group that celebrates that holiday, then it is a fact for you. If you are not, it is still a really cool story to enjoy (Divali or Hanukkah, for example). I, typically, don’t teach the harder ones for my little guys. Topics like Easter and Passover are just too full of heavy details for me to lead a discussion, so I put those books out for students to take home. Too many really weighty questions.
How does your school use holiday-themed books—in curriculum, or just for enjoyment/pleasure-reading purposes?
Kannam: Holiday-themed books are not in the reading curriculum but are used by teachers in the classroom in the social studies block, for social-emotional development. In the library, I use them for students to self select and as read-alouds to explore diverse cultures and traditions.
Boyd: Yes, the DCPS library department provides a multicultural reading list of ebooks and digital resources every month. Check out the list for the month of December for students, teachers, and parents.
Midura: We do have a ‘winter holidays around the world’ unit in our 1st grade curriculum. Almost all grade levels include some sort of holiday-based lesson, though.
What about book displays in school libraries? What does this look like this year?
Kannam: Book displays are always fun, but this time of year is exceptionally joyful. Book displays this year include lots of gorgeous new books about Christmas, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, New Year’s Eve, Kwanzaa, and Saint Nicholas Day.
Boyd: Nothing has changed. If anything, we have been encouraged by district leaders to continue to create displays to support students’ independent reading and inquiry and to encourage curiosity.
Midura: I put out as much as I can. I encourage my students to read books about cultures outside of their own. This year, I continue to display books the week before and [the week] of the upcoming holiday. I have genre stickers for many of the holidays and religions. If a student wants a book before I’m ready to make a display, Christmas before Thanksgiving, for example, I revisit how to use the genre stickers to find what they are looking for.
What’s your favorite holiday book to share with students?
Kannam: My favorite holiday books currently to read aloud and discuss with students include Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the U.S.- Mexican Border by Mitali Perkins and Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko. Students still really enjoy Pete the Cat books (Pete the Cat Saves Christmas by James Dean and Eric Litwin and Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly and James Dean) and I appreciate their emphasis on helping others, kindness, and resilience.
Boyd: All of them! I simply direct kids to books that may interest them. As a practice I keep my personal likes/dislikes to myself so that I do not influence their reading.
Midura: Personally, I love the story of Rama and Sita (a tale from the Hindu religion, and specifically, from Diwali, the festival of light). So cool! Also, Red Ranger Came Calling is also such a cool wow factor book as well.