Priceless Gifts

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Priceless Gifts

Picture Books That Counter Consumer Culture

Parenting amidst a commercial culture can be stressful, especially if you value imaginative play, frugality, ecological awareness, and the development of empathy. AJuliet Schor's Born to Buy and Susan Linn's Consuming Kids document in detail, corporate marketing aggressively targets children from birth onward; it's hard to escape this pervasive influence.

Compared to most other consumer products marketed to children, I tend to regard books as a more wholesome option. Even so, I've noticed that many children's stories normalize consumerism and ignore its costs. If you share these concerns, check out these picture books that instead celebrate thrift, generosity, creativity, and simplicity (and their availability at the public library means you can read them without buying them!):

The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
Mooch the cat wants to give a gift to his best friend Earl the dog. But Earl seems to have everything. Is there any gift that Mooch can give him? Mooch then thinks of the perfect gift—one he can't buy at any store. Written and illustrated by the creator of the award-winning comic strip Mutts, this simple and heartwarming story celebrates non-material gifts. Recommended for ages 2-8 (and adults too!).

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco
As with many of her other books, Polacco's rich family history inspires this story set in rural MIchigan during the Great Depression. Her great uncle Frankie, the youngest boy in the Stowell family, looks forward to the joys of Christmas: being an angel in the church pageant, decorating the farmhouse with evergreens, preparing the feast, and Pa's return from a trip. But most of all he eagerly awaits the oranges that Pa puts in each child's stocking. After Frankie loses his orange because of a mistake he makes, his family surprises him on Christmas morning with a special gift. A celebration of family, generosity, and simple pleasures, this poignant tale is an antidote to the hyper-commercialism of the contemporary holiday season. Recommended for ages 4-9.

Luba and the Wren by Patricia Polacco
The young Ukrainian girl Luba lives happily with her poor parents in their humble dacha. When she helps a frightened wren, it grants her anything she wishes. Luba wants nothing, but her mama and papa want a bigger house, then a rich estate, a palace, and eventually to be rulers of the world. They never seem content with what they have and always want more. Will they ever be happy? This beautiful Russian version of The Fisherman and His Wife illustrates the rewards of simplicity. Recommended for ages 3-9.

The Man in the Clouds by Koos Meinderts
An old man who lives on a mountaintop spends his days admiring his beautiful painting, joyfully sharing it with many villagers who climb to see it. But when a stranger tells him his painting is worth a lot of money, he begins to see it differently. Instead of sharing it, he tries to protect it by locking it up and turning away villagers who want to see it. Later realizing his painting no longer gives him joy, he makes a dramatic decision that allows him to again find beauty in the world. This lyrical tale explores the perils of commodification. Recommended for ages 4-9.

Doodle Flute by Daniel Pinkwater
Kevin Spoon appears to be lucky - he has many expensive toys and gadgets, his own room, purebred guppies, and a large yard with a pool. One day he encounters the "weird" kid Mason Mintz, who has none of the toys he has. But Mason Mintz has one thing that Kevin Spoon doesn't - a doodle flute. Although it looks lumpy and dumb, it makes extraordinary music. Kevin Spoon wants one, but no store sells it, nor will Mason Mintz sell or trade his. How can Kevin Spoon have a doodle flute to play? The two develop a solution... and a friendship. Recommended for ages 3-8.

Big Box for Ben by Deborah Bruss
Have you witnessed a young child receive a present, only to then play more with the box than the toy itself? Sometimes the simplest objects are the best toys! In this board book, a cardboard box allows Ben and his dog Wags to go on some extraordinary adventures. It can be a race car, a plane, a boat, a clubhouse, an elephant, a mountain, a doghouse... With imagination the possibilities are endless. Ideal for ages 1-3.

Christina Katerina and the Box by Patricia Lee Gauch
When a refrigerator arrives in a large brown carton, Christina Katerina and her mother are excited for different reasons. Christina claims the box and places it under the apple tree on the front lawn. With her imagination, she transforms it first into a castle. Even when her neighbor destroys her creation, she shows remarkable resilience, transforming her damaged box into a clubhouse, a race car, and eventually a dance floor. In contrast to this era when electronic entertainment often dominates children's lives, this story beautifully captures the magic of a childhood full of imaginative play. Recommended for ages 3-8.

Nothing by Jon Agee
Shopkeeper Otis has sold his last antique, but Suzie Gump, the richest lady in town, arrives at his empty shop and insists on buying nothing. She starts a new fad that has everyone buying nothing. Soon all the stores in town are selling nothing and crowds are in a frenzy over it. Have things gone too far? This absurd story parodies herd behavior in consumer fads in a way young children will enjoy. Recommended for ages 3-8.

The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau
A generous quiltmaker makes beautiful quilts for those in need. When a greedy king demands that she make him one too, she eventually agrees but only if he meets certain conditions. Once an unhappy man obsessed with material possessions, the king undergoes a change of heart over the course of this story. Each exquisitely illustrated page features a different quilt block pattern. Recommended for ages 4-8.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback
Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman
My Grandfather's Coat  retold by Jim Aylesworth  

These three picture book versions of the Jewish and Eastern European folk tale about a poor tailor illustrate thrift and resourcefulness. The tailor makes an overcoat and wears it until it is too old. Instead of throwing it out, he makes a jacket out of it.  When his jacket wears out, he recycles it into a vest. This pattern continues until he has only a button, but it eventually is lost. What can be made out of nothing? Recommended for ages 3-8.

Consider also telling this story as an oral tale; instead of relying on book pictures, children can create their own imagery and details. A good resource for oral telling of this tale (and others) is Just Enough to Make A Story: A Sourcebook for Storytelling by Nancy Schimmel.