Review of the Day: Santa's Kwanzaa
I know, I know. I'm inconsistent. After reviewing Three French Hens I apologized profusely for doing a Christmas book out of season. Then not a week later I turn around and review, Santa's Kwanzaa. Sorry sorry. But I have my reasons! You see, not too long ago I heard that someone was going to challenge a library for carrying this book. And since I like to keep on top of censorship challenges, I knew I had to read it. And, in reading it, review it. And, in reviewing it, post it immediately before the hot flame of my anger cooled. So to speak. In any case, it's a rather nice book. I would encourage you to give it a glance (and I've posted something about the illustrator's blog too, so check THAT out as well).
I am a children’s librarian who reviews children’s books hither and thither. Thither and yon. Naturally, this job is awfully enjoyable, but it’s also fraught with peril. Some of the peril is connected to the fact that as a WASP I view the books I review from a certain perspective. I sometimes have difficulty seeing things from other points of view. I’m mentioning this, you see, because not so long ago I heard of a challenge to Garein Eileen Thomas’s charming, “Santa’s Kwanzaa”. It seems that someone in the world felt that this book was offensive. When I heard this, I was puzzled. “Santa’s Kwanzaa”? Really? Really really? So I checked it out of my library branch, paged through it, showed it to countless librarians like myself, and we all came to the same conclusion. Say what you want about this book. Say it’s a teensy bit cheesy or maybe it’s rhymes don’t always work out perfectly. But do not say that the book is offensive. It’s a lovely little combination of two distinct holidays into a single amusing text that all sorts of kids can enjoy. But then, that's just my angle on it.
Christmas Eve is almost over and Santa’s reaching the end of the night. He’s just left the last house, chomped on the last cookie, and is returning back home to the North Pole at long last. On entering his house, however, something is up. He walks into his living room and SURPRISE!! It’s his wife and his elves holding out his kente with a big banner reading, “Welcome Home, Santa Kwaz!”. Santa relaxes after all his work and the elves give him some presents for Kwanzaa. After celebrating their roots (Santa, wife, and elves are all black, I should probably note) the jolly old elf is so pleased that he takes everyone up for a big old sleigh ride , lighting up the sky with colors (ala the Northern Lights) that wish everyone in the world peace and goodwill.
Neither the author nor the illustrator had done much that was well-known before the publication of “Santa’s Kwanzaa”. This was Garen Eileen Thomas's first book for children. Guy Francis, who should win an award solely based on how cool his name really is, had done some work but nothing too notable. With this title, however, he has given the illustrations a great deal of time and attention. According to his blog he did quite a lot of research on Kwanzaa before illustrating it fully. I was intrigued by Francis’s decision to make Santa’s ethnicity evident in a kind of slow reveal. It works, but it isn't something you necessarily expect. It is amazing how obvious it seems that Santa should have dreads though. After a couple readings of this book you begin to think to yourself, “Wait... doesn’t Santa always have dreads? Or is that new?" Where Francis really excels, however, is in the clothing. You can see on the cover the elaborate patterns on Santa’s mittens. As the book progresses, Santa’s clothes grow more and more complex. His kente cloth is well-patterned, his robes lined with white fur are intricately detailed with green variations, and his shoes are faaa-bulous.
There are some slight inconsistencies here and there. If Santa just arrived home from giving out presents, how is it that it’s now the 26th of December? Some other reviewers (of the more professional breed) have pointed out that if you are not familiar with the customs of Kwanzaa itself, this is not going to be the book that teaches you what the holiday is all about. I myself know relatively little about Kwanzaa, so the section in the back in which each elf is named and given a definition, (example: “Ujima is responsible for solving problems”) passed way way over my head. I don’t actually know what these words mean. So consider, “Santa’s Kwanzaa” a complement to the holiday rather than a primary source.
I can see how if the author had combined Hanukkah and Christmas that might be offensive to someone. In fact, it’s been done numerous times in children’s books with varying degrees of success. But as one co-worker of mine pointed out, many of the people who celebrate Kwanzaa ALSO celebrate Christmas. The two are not opposed to one another. And every person I’ve shown this to has loved it. It’s big and bright and cheery. But of course, since I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa myself, how can I truly determine whether or not its offensive to someone? Well, author Garen Eileen Thomas DOES celebrate Kwanzaa, and she knows her stuff. Obviously, this book is bound to please some and not please others. Still, I seriously think it leans towards the “pleasing” end of the scale for the most part. Definitely check it out before you purchase it, but know that it’s a gorgeous booklet and a lovely lovely tale.