Review: Giving Thanks 1621

Some thoughts on a slightly controversial children’s book.

Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast by Kate Waters, photographs by Russ Kendall, in cooperation with the Plimoth Plantation.
Scholastic, New York, 2001.
Picture book, 40 pages.
Lexile:  620L  .
AR Level:  3.9 (worth 0.5)  .
NOTE:  There is another book by the same title but subtitled “A Native American Good Morning Message.”

A 1621 harvest feast as seen through the eyes of two boys, reenacted at Plimoth Plantation.

Giving Thanks 1621 Harvest Feast

I feel it’s important to note that this book is on the former Oyate’s List of Thanksgiving Books to Avoid.  That’s part of why I checked it out from the library instead of buying.  However, I couldn’t find any in-depth reviews, so I decided to look through it myself to see how suitable, if at all, this would be for teaching about the holiday.

Because this is one of the Oyate Books to Avoid, the format of this review will look rather different than most.  I decided to use the 11 Myths about Thanksgiving template to consider this book.  My overall thoughts will follow.  

Myth #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
Myth #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.

Although the book is subtitled “The 1621 Harvest Feast,” the first page states:

“Autumn 1621: Sometime between September 21 and November 9, 1621, the English colonists, whom we call Pilgrims, and the Wampanoag people shared a harvest celebration. Through time, stories and popular myths have evolved around this event, which has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving.”

Myth #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.

This is not mentioned.  Ironically, in reviews I read before reading, that was a repeated complaint.  The Wampanoag religious beliefs are mentioned several times as they impact everyday life, while the colonists refer to God less often.

Myth #4: When the “Pilgrims” landed, they first stepped foot on “Plymouth Rock.”

This is never mentioned.  The book is mostly set at Plimoth, but this myth is not included.

Myth #5: The Pilgrims found corn.

Corn is mentioned six times in this book. Three are from the perspective of Resolved White, the English boy, who states “Traces of corn hang in the rafters.” (page 7) “Since sunup, I have ground corn and fetched water.” (page 16) “As swiftly as I can, I grind the corn for samp while mother roasts one of the ducks I plucked.” (page 33)

One is from the perspective of Wampanoag boy Dancing Moccasins who states:

“Some of our corn and beans have been taken back to our village.  Some will be stored at the homesite until next spring.  I helped dig the storage pits.  My little brother helps me carry a sack of corn to the pit.” page 6

On page 38, the author’s notes include a recipe for for corn pudding.  The final mention of corn is in the glossary where it’s mentioned in the definition of samp which was a dish the Wampanoag taught the settlers to make.  Waters does not mention that the corn the settlers had was stolen from the Wampanoag, but she also doesn’t lie about where the corn came from.  She skirts around that issue but does correctly identify the corn dishes eaten as Wampanoag in origin.

Giving Thanks 1621 p6 7 resized
Pages 6 and 7 of Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast.

Myth #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at “The First Thanksgiving.”

Samoset is not mentioned in this book, and Tisquantum only in the author’s note:

“Their neighbor, Tisquantum, also called Squanto, helped them plant seeds from local plants. When the crops were harvested in the autumn, the settlers saw that they had enough food to last them through another winter.” (page 36)

And later in the author’s note, describing the photograph on page 22-23,

“Seated at the top is Squanto, who was the only surviving Patuxet Indian. He spoke English because he had been kidnapped and brought to Spain, then England. When, after seven years, he returned to his homeland, his people had all died in the plague of 1616-1618.” (page 38)

Massasoit is mentioned in both the text and author’s note repeatedly, although he is only in a few of the photographs (since the photos focus on the two boys whose perspectives are featured).

Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.

The book accurately portrays Massasoit as setting up the meeting, coming to Plimoth, and providing food for both groups.

Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.

The five deer and other foods provided by Massasoit are a major part of the story. Resolved also states “Their food is finer than any I’ve seen since leaving home.” (page 23)  Both Dancing Moccasins and Resolved are involved in food gathering or preparation, but only the Wampanoag food is shared.

Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.

The food portrayed and mentioned in the afterword appears to be accurate.

Giving Thanks 1621 p16 17 resized
Pages 16 and 17 of Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast.

Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

This is a tricky one.  The book gives an overall positive feel to the interactions.  The English boy certainly comes away from it with the idea that they are friends, but the Wampanoag perspective is not enthusiastic.  However I don’t think this nuance is presented in a way that young readers are likely to pick up on it.

Dancing Moccasins states on his final page “I am excited to be away from home and among the men.” Resolved states on his final page “This is the most wondrous time since we arrived in this new land.” (pages 34 and 35)  This aspect of the book needs work.

###

Overall, there’s definitely room for improvement, but this is one of the better children’s books about 1621 that I’ve seen.  The text is appropriate and engaging for upper elementary, which is probably the earliest that I would start to talk with children about the history of the holiday and work on dismantling the Thanksgiving narrative they might hear from popular media.  The back matter is okay for older students or teachers to start thinking about the true story, although I wish it pushed a little further.

This would not be my first choice to give students or teachers, and it is flawed.  However, I think it’s a much more palatable supplement than other books that are commonly recommended.  Particularly in comparison with the dismal failure of many “Thanksgiving” books for children, I would give this one a passing grade.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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