Christmas Books for Inner City Students

“The journey of a lifetime starts with the turning of a page.”

                                                                             –Rachel Anders

Christmas is a time of anxiety for the students in my behavior disorder/emotionally disturbed classroom. Living in poverty, the expectations of the rest of America accentuated their lack of “stuff”. Depression, despair and desperation etch their twelve-year-old faces, and move in their behaviors. The half hour after lunch, I pull them into a ring around me as I share my favorite picture books.

An Oldie, but Goodie

A traditional opener for the season, The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry puts perspective on the whole gift giving business. A newly-wed couple gives up their most cherished possession to purchase a present worthy of their beloved spouse. There is a twist in the story that I refuse to ruin for those not familiar with the plot. Needless to say, the twelve year olds living in the Robbins Projects “got it.”

History With a Heart

Putting an historic angle to the holiday, I explained WWI in terms that street savvy boys understood all too well. Two armies held guns on one another on December 24, 1914. No Man’s Land stretched between them. A faint sound of singing cut through the frosty air. The soldiers from both sides recognized the tune and sang “Silent Night” in their own language. Over 100,000 tired men joined in an unofficial Christmas Truce. For a brief time, the two armies were united in spirit. For my class who cope with gang warfare on a daily basis, Christmas in the Trenches, by John McCutcheon, may have planted seeds of insight on what it would take to stop street fighting.

Family Oral Tradition

An exceptional author for children’s historical events, Eve Bunting brings hope for the future in her book, One Candle. In the midst of the cooking and baking of the season, the family in this story pauses to remember the darkest hours of the Holocaust, and how they survived the unthinkable. This is a book that explains Hanukkah as well as the importance of honoring the tragedies and triumphs of the past and passing on hope for better days. The young men in my classroom grew silent every year during this reading, wiping a tear from the corner of their eye.

Not a Fairy Tale

Hans Christian Anderson always promises a heart wrenching story, and The Little Match Girl delivers. This old favorite of the homeless orphan who dies on the streets while selling matches, is close to the lives of the boys inching their chairs closer to see the illustrations. They know loss. They know hunger. They know bone chilling conditions. They know suffering, and they learn to empathize and grieve. My heart saddens with theirs for the pain in this world. Anais Nin speaks for the authors of life transforming stories: “The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”

When Life is Down to Basics

A book that tells a story from the Appalachian Mountains is The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston. Set during the First World War, little Ruthie of Pine Grove is to be the Christmas angel in the school play. Their family is to supply the tree for the occasion. Father has not returned from the War. How will Ruthie and her mother survive this time? A tender story of grace, hope and strength in the tough circumstances of life. A book that provides a warm hug for a class that needs to be held in gentle arms.

Where’s the Quilt?

As a retired teacher, the time that I miss the most is the time when I read books to the children. It was life-giving to me. From their reactions, this “huddle around the teacher” was exactly what their spirits required. The assurance that life lived in uncertainty and despair can also be filled with hope. The hope that only the celebration of a baby born in a manger can bring to this broken world.


“I’m a big believer in bibliotherapy. Books have the power to change lives: what we think and what we do.”   -Eric Walters

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