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Children's Literature Reviews
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Christmas in the big house, Christmas in the quarters
by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack ; illustrated by John Thompson.
New York : Scholastic, c1994.
68 p. : col. ill. ; 29 cm.


Includes bibliographical references (p. 67-68).
Describes the customs, recipes, poems, and songs used to celebrate Christmas in the big plantation houses and in the slave quarters just before the Civil War.

Best Books:

A Few Good Books, 1994 ; Book Links; United States
Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for PreK-Grade 6, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Thirteenth Edition, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Kaleidoscope, A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8, Second Edition, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Lasting Connections, 1994 ; American Library Association; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, October 1994 ; Cahners; United States
Teachers' Choices, 1995 ; International Reading Association; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

ABC Children's Booksellers Choices Award, 1995 Winner Special Subjects United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1995 Winner Author United States
Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, 1995 Honor Book United States

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Great Stone Face Award, 1995-1996 ; Nominee; New Hampshire
Maine Student Book Award, 1995-1996 ; Nominee; Maine
Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award, 1998 ; Nominee; Illinois

Curriculum Tools:

Link to Coretta Scott King curricular resources at

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader" "
Interest Level Middle Grade" "
Book Level 5.4" "
Accelerated Reader Points 1" "
Accelerated Vocabulary" "

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Lexile Measure 960

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 3-5
Reading Level 6
Title Point Value 3
Lexile Measure 960


Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, August 1994 (Vol. 90, No. 22))
This unusual book shows life on a Virginia plantation in 1859. Beginning after the harvest is in, the narrative describes the preparations for the Christmas season and the celebrations that follow. The differences in resources, lifestyles, and traditions between the plantation owner's family and the slaves provides a continuous contrast. Although the slaves' hardships are evident, they are not sensationalized, and the slaves' relationships with Massa and Missus in the big house are drawn with more subtlety than in many other children's books on the period. The final scenes use ironic foreshadowing: the master tells his young daughter that she'll be old enough to have her own slave in 1865, and in the quarters, a mother tells her son not to speak of running away, because she has heard rumors of freedom coming. Dramatic, full-color illustrations throughout the book offer windows on the period, showing individualized portraits of the characters at work, at rest, and at play. Some may find this a romanticized picture of slavery, but appended notes provide background information and show the authors' research on the period. Category: For the Young. 1994, Scholastic, $15.95. Gr. 4-6, with interest for older readers.

Debra Briatico (Children's Literature)
This award-winning book describes the sights and sounds of a Christmas celebration held at a Virginia plantation in 1859. Although the Big House and slave quarters both celebrate the holiday with food, songs and games, the focus of their conversations differ completely--one group discusses war and the other group discusses emancipation and escape. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 8 to 12.

Jan Lieberman (Children's Literature)
This is not just a holiday book, but a rich, detailed description of life on a plantation in 1859 from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. The meager generosity of the masters to their slaves is tempered by the mean-spirited activity of separating slave families on New Year's Day. The joy of each is shown by the love they have for their own families. While their table settings and foods vary dramatically, each has favorite songs and recipes, some are included. The dignity of the slaves is portrayed handsomely in the paintings which are full of life and personality. History truly springs to life in this remarkable book. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 8 up.

Susie Wilde (Children's Literature)
This book, a Coretta Scott King Award winner, will stand the test of time and please a variety of readers. This nonfiction novel unfolds on the edge of the Civil War, in quiet times when tradition rules, but undercurrents whisper of monumental changes to come. The setting is 1859 on a Virginia plantation. The story unfolds as a small child in the Big House asks how long to Christmas and is told thirty-five days. In the Quarters, a young black child wonders after the "Big Times" and is told "not long after shoe-wearing time." The authors follow the particulars of these side-by-side cultures throughout holiday preparation, celebration and aftermath. They weave in the stories, songs, and customs of both houses, presenting life with great specificity, wisely avoiding judgments, and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. The wealth of facts is balanced with the tender intimacies in both houses that bring about the book's emotional potency and the genuineness of all characters. The illustrations realistically portray the richness of the lives and the emotions of the entire plantation. This is a book that can be shared throughout the holiday season, used by teachers to bring understanding of the period to children, and it is a book that older children will be drawn to because it is unique. This is a book that will bring much to many for a long time... a book that deserves its award. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 9 up.

Dr. Beverly Kobrin (Children's Literature)
Patricia C McKissack vivifies a Christmas celebration .in the Big House, and in the Quarters, on a Virginia plantation, circa 1859. Based on Fredrick L. McKissack's impeccable research and illustrated by John Thompson's evocative acrylics, her stunning recreation of the food, music, poetry, and customs of people at both ends of the social scale is a must for all school libraries. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 9 up.

Dr. Judy Rowen (Children's Literature)
Details of holiday observances practiced by the wealthy residents as well as the slaves who lived on a large Virginia plantation in 1859 are shared through narrative, songs, recipes and glorious illustrations. The love of family and the bonds of traditions are made bittersweet by the tumultuous changes wrought by the upheavals inherent in the lives of the slaves and the impending wrenching changes wrought by war. The book is meticulously attendant to historical accuracy and never descends into an overly sentimental view. Detailed notes follow the text, with further interesting tidbits (for example, the phrase "sleep tight" refers to the rope slats supporting a mattress which must be tight to avoid uncomfortable sagging). Winner of the 1995 Coretta Scott King Award. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 12 up.

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 1994)
To depict daily life for the two communities living in parallel realities on a Virginia plantation during December, 1859, the authors gained access to primary source materials from Tidewater plantation records and held interviews there to find out more family histories. Wisely setting their text immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War, the McKissacks offer an amazing balance of perspectives while they report the distinctive culture of the Quarters. Showing the misery as well as the dignity of families in captivity, they allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Thompson's detailed paintings rendered in acrylic and reproduced in full-color recreate the season and the buildings as well as some of the individually distinct Afro-centric head-wraps of enslaved women and holiday decorations in the Big House. Both the text and the illustrations move far beyond conventional media-induced images of plantation life. Incomparable in scope, content and emotional impact, this well designed, easy-to-read account furnishes provocative information and offers dynamic year-round reading. Winner, 1994 CCBC Coretta Scott King Award Discussion: Writing. CCBC categories: Historical People, Places And Events; Seasons And Celebrations. 1994, Scholastic, 68 pages, $17.95. Ages 8-13.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1994)
It's Christmas 1859 on a Virginia plantation. The family in the Big House and the slaves in the Quarters prepare for their celebrations. It is a happy time for everyone. Families are united. Feast are prepared. Singing and dancing are seen everywhere. The McKissacks (The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, 1994, etc.) have written a strangely romantic view of a pre-emancipation Christmas. Not that there isn't talk of freedom among the slaves, and of uprising among the whites; it's just not clear why these slaves are unhappy. They are obviously poorer than their masters, but, except for a New Year's Day separation of black family members, plantation life doesn't seem at all bad. Thompson's glowing pictures, depicting well-dressed, healthy slaves and their masters celebrating together do nothing to dispel this impression. Perhaps if the McKissacks had shown the contrast between Christmas and the rest of the year more clearly, rather than assuming that their readers would all understand the evils of slavery, their book might have been more successful. It's tricky to reclaim traditions from an unhappy past. The line between glorifying aspects of slave culture and seeming to ignore the brute evil of slavery is thin. Unfortunately, the McKissacks have stepped over. 1994, Scholastic, $15.95. © 1994 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

K. Millburg (Parent Council Volume 2)
Christmas on a Virginia plantation circa 1859. The authors compare and contrast how Christmas was celebrated in the big house and in the slave quarters. Warm and moving illustrations, along with recipes, poems, and songs help to depict life just before the Civil War. 1994, Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 8 to 12.

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
On a Virginia plantation in 1859, the slaves work hard to get the Big House ready for Christmas, and to prepare their own Quarters for the ``Big Times'' also. As they describe the goings-on during the weeks before Christmas as well as the actual rituals of the day, the McKissacks carefully and convincingly delineate the discrepancies between the two milieux-from the physical settings to the people's differing appreciations of the holiday's riches. The contrast is startling and stirring. This is a book of significant dimension and importance, and could be read at any time of year. The authors also add riddles, rhymes, recipes and copious notes. Rendered in acrylic on board, Thompson's remarkably realistic paintings are charged with emotion and masterfully tie together the book's diverse contents. Ages 8-13. (Oct.)

Roger Sutton (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October 1994 (Vol. 48, No. 2))
It's a delicate job, eliciting the joys of Christmas and the sorrows of slavery in the same book, but, by and large, the McKissacks have managed it. Their fictionalized account of a Virginia Christmas in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War flows smoothly between the elaborate preparations in "Massa's" plantation mansion and the homelier observances in the slave quarters. While the former are more deluxe, it's the latter that have the spirit, echoed by the authors' segues from formal prose to a more relaxed phrasing: "Reckon it won't hurt to hang yo' stockings by the fire." The tensions of race and slavery are never forgotten, at least by the slaves; they show up in the ritual of the Mistress's handing out presents to the slaves ("graciously given and humbly received") and the favor returned ("humbly given and graciously received") as well as in the slaves' relief when the whole charade is finished. There's plenty of detail of the kind that kids will like: how they decorated, what kinds of gifts were exchanged, and what was eaten, including a slave recipe for sweet potato pie. Sometimes the tone is little too sweet ("Happy boys and girls skip and dance; happy voices shout and sing") and Thompson's full-page acrylic paintings are photorealistically attractive but somewhat glamorized, with the cozy firelight of the slave cabins as welcoming as the glowing Christmas candles of the Big House. That may be the point, but the illustrations, like those in Courtni Wright's Jumping the Broom (BCCB 7/94), uncomfortably teeter into the picturesque. The text is more balanced, ending with forebodings of war and emancipation, and explanatory notes and a comprehensive bibliography add historical legitimacy. R--Recommended. (c) Copyright 1994, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1994, Scholastic, 80p, $15.95. Grades 4-6.


Plantation life--Southern States--History--19th century--Juvenile literature.
Christmas--Southern States--History--19th century--Juvenile literature.
Slaves--Southern States--Social conditions--Juvenile literature.
Plantation life--Southern States--History--19th century.
Christmas--Southern States--History--19th century.
Slaves--Social life and customs.
Southern States--Social life and customs--1775-1865--Juvenile literature.
Southern States--Social life and customs--1775-1865.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) F213 .M36 1994
92033831 975/.03
0590430270 : $15.95
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