The Gift of Reading: We Three BooksMichael M. Guevara
On the day after state testing, one of my sophomores burst into the room and announced: “Mr. G, I used rule of three on my essay.”
It was a proud moment. Rule of Three is the concept that words or phrases are inherently more appealing in groups of three. It’s a quick and dirty writing trick/tip I teach my students each year to add a level of craft to their writing. And once they learn it, they notice it everywhere, particularly in the books they read. It’s a little gift that keeps on giving.
And thinking of this month’s theme, The Gift of Reading, Rule of Three seems to fit in here as well. Christmas lends itself to Rule of Three with the whole three kings thing, the three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), three French hens, and of course Santa chanting ho, ho, ho!
So, why not three children’s books for the gift of reading. One is a classic Christmas favorite of mine, the other is brand new, and one has nothing at all to do with Christmas—or does it?
Growing up in Texas, one of the things we look forward to at Christmas almost as much as presents under the tree is tamales steaming in the kitchen. Okay, tamales do outrank gifts. And of course, we can have tamales any time of year, but they take on a special role in these parts around Christmas. And so does the wonderful little story Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. Maria loves helping her mother make tamales, but she is even more intrigued with the diamond ring her mother has taken off to knead the masa. When her mother leaves the room, Maria puts the ring on and loves how it “sparkled on her thumb.” When her mother returns, they go back to making tamales.
All is well, the tamales are prepared, and Maria goes upstairs to play with her cousins, which is when she realizes she never took off her mother’s ring and now it is missing. She knows the ring has to be in the tamales. This scene always makes me think Gary Soto found inspiration in the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy finds her lost wedding ring cooked into a hamburger. Maria and her cousins devise a plan to find the ring—they will eat all of the tamales. This, of course, is where Gary Soto introduces the most controversial line of the story: “They ripped off the husks and bit into them. The first one was good, the second one pretty good, but by the third tamale, they were tired of the taste.” (16)
Wrong. Only an amateur is tired of tamales after the third one.
Still the story is seasonally sweet. Maria’s mother is reunited with her ring, and the family comes together to make another batch of tamales because, as Maria’s Aunt Rosa says, “Hey, niña, it’s not so bad. Everyone knows that the second batch of tamales always tastes better than the first, right?” (28)
Of course, growing up in Texas, Christmas rarely ever looked like the pictures of Christmas we saw in books, movies, cards, and pictures. It’s this kind of issue that worries Deja in Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson. Not only do the kids at Deja’s school not believe in Santa like she does, Deja worries Santa won’t be able to find her in the city. There are no chimneys in her apartment building for Santa to come down, there is no parking anywhere for his sled and reindeer, and the buildings on her block don’t look ready for Christmas.
Deja wonders, “If we can’t decorate our building, how will Santa find us?” (13) Deja’s mother tells her they will put lights in their windows so Santa won’t miss them. This makes sense to her, “But as soon as they walk into the corner bodega, another question pops into Deja’s head. And then another. And another.” (15)
And no children’s Christmas book would truly be a gift of reading if the magic of Christmas doesn’t arrive just as expected. Deja’s worries are all put to rest: “But when she woke up, she found something better than any toy…” (No, it wasn’t tamales). “…A special message from Santa, just for her, letting her know once and for all magic really does find a way.” (29)
Tamales for Christmas and Santa finding you even in the city are definitely Christmas themed stories, but harkening back to our Sesame Street days, one of one of these things is not like the others. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña isn’t really a Christmas story.
Except it is.
Though we try to foster the idea that Christmas isn’t about the gifts, or tamales, sometimes it’s hard for Christmas not to turn into what others got compared to what we got. The first day back from winter break, kids are all hit by the what-did-you-get-for-Christmas question. In Last Stop, CJ wonders why they have to wait in the rain for the bus, why don’t they have a car instead, why doesn’t he have what the older boys in the bus have, and “How come we always gotta go here after church?” (11)
Throughout their trip to Market Street, Nana reminds CJ of all the gifts he has received, how the experiences and people they meet on the bus are truly a gift. And then CJ “saw sunset colors,” “a family of hawks slicing through the sky,” “butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon,” and “CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.” (18)
That’s Christmas, right?
And then, bow on the Christmas present, we find that the last stop on Market Street is the soup kitchen where CJ and Nana volunteer. CJ wonders why everything around them is so dirty, and Nana tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” (22)
That is Christmas.
So, as you wrap a few presents and, hopefully, unwrap more than three tamales, share these three gifts of reading as a witness of what is beautiful.
Download the lesson below for a class activity on the complexity of questions.
Michael Méndez Guevara is a former high school journalism and English teacher who spent his time in the classroom helping students see themselves as writers and fall in love with reading through the world of young adult literature. As an educational sales consultant with Perfection Learning®, Michael works with teachers and schools on improving their literacy instruction and providing resources to help students achieve academic success. He has taught elementary school, middle school, and high school and has worked as a district level leader and served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed the state’s current literacy standards. He is the father of three adult sons, the youngest a student at the University of Kansas—Rock Chalk! Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel, The Closest Thing to a Normal Life. When he's not reading, writing, or running, Michael is fully committed to watching as much Law & Order as possible.