By Laila Weir
When the holidays and school vacations roll around, they bring family time for many of us. Not just time with the members of your household—visits with extended family. Big gatherings and family meals. Going to stay with relatives, or hosting them at our homes. Grandparents visiting or coming to stay. Cousins, aunts, uncles. So. Much. Family.
Gathering and reconnecting with loved ones near and far, within and across generations, is a source of great joy. It can also represent an upheaval: sharing space, dealing with differences, and getting along with others, to name a few. Not to mention handling a bunch of extra noise and chaos on the one hand and different rules or expectations on the other.
As with just about any subject under the sun, we believe that sharing a book is among the absolute best ways to broach this topic with your kids. A great story can simultaneously validate children’s feelings while gently helping them see how to resolve, accept, or evolve them. The truly great ones will even help us parents, too.
Below are a couple of moving picture books that are well suited for prepping young children (and, really, the whole family) for gatherings and visits with extended family.
In this lyrically lovely Caldecott Honor Book, a little boy drives with his family and a cooler full of snacks to a reunion at his grandmother’s farm. Author Kelly Starling Lyons’s tale shines with love and togetherness, and it showcases emotionally healthy responses to the bumpy terrain of life, making it one of our favorites for building emotional intelligence.
The narrative also shines a spotlight on the complicated emotions that can come up during special occasions. The main character “dozes off in a cloud of worry” as they head to the reunion, where everyone is expected to share something–a song, a poem–and he has nothing to share. Of course, he does find something to share by the end of the book, and along the way, he rediscovers gentle lessons of thankfulness, connection, and trusting himself.
It’s a celebration of the sweet simplicity of what matters in life, as the extended family comes together to eat “love-made dishes,” play checkers and cards, share stories and remembrances. The relatives don’t shy away from hard topics, honoring their ancestors’ experiences of enslavement and the memory of a grandfather who passed away, doing so in a way that highlights triumph and resilience such that even their hardships become sources of poignant joy. The book’s beautiful illustrations convey a strong sense of emotion and underscore its powerful messages.
This book holds up an ideal of family that is simultaneously inspiring and achievable, and it will help children (and their parents) pop out of their bubbles of personal wants, wishes, and worries to connect with something more meaningful. Reading this story together is great preparation for making the most of together time.
Also a Caldecott Honor Book, this sweet and evocative tale also reminds us to lean into time with loved ones and enjoy each other, despite all the challenges inherent in extended family time. In this very real story about a very real family (whose old station wagon smells “like a real car”), the relatives pack a car with soda pop, crackers, and bologna sandwiches and hit the road to visit the narrator’s household. On their drive, they think first of what they’re leaving back home, but they also think about where—or, more importantly, who—they’re driving to see.
Henry and Mudge author Cynthia Rylant uses a gentle touch, never lecturing, to subtly evoke the disruption to routines that family visits and holidays entail, while always coming down on the side of joy in one another’s company. When the relatives arrive, there’s laughing and hugging—so much hugging that you have to go through numerous hugs to get from room to room. They have to take turns at the table for dinner and share beds at night, adjusting to falling asleep “with all that new breathing in the house.” Yet, by the time the relatives leave, the hosting household’s beds feel too big and empty. The book’s playful illustrations convey the challenges and, most especially, the joy, with subtlety and humor.
Spending time with extended family involves a transition, away from our (sometimes) carefully ordered lives and into a time and space of existing within a group, which requires a little breathing out to relax into. This book is ideal for easing that transition and reminding us to let go and enjoy “hugging and eating and breathing together.”
More Books About Relatives
Has your child ever refused to sit on the lap of a grandfather they hadn’t seen in a while, wiped off a kiss from Grandma, or otherwise been embarrassingly less than effusive around relatives? Have grandparents or other family members ever looked askance at the noise or, shall we say, energy levels of your little ones? If you’re planning some time with relatives that your children don’t know well, or just haven’t seen in some time, a good picture book can help, such as Oliver, Amanda, and Grandmother Pig by Jean Van Leeuwen.