by Sophia Toprac
Kwanzaa, the Pan-African Diaspora Holiday, is a great time to read a book about this unique holiday to a child! The week long holiday spans from December 26th to January 1st and is a time for African-Americans to reconnect with their roots, and with each other, by celebrating the seven principles of African heritage, called the Nguzo Saba. These principles reflect the beauty, strength, and courage of contemporary black American culture.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1965 by Maulana Karenga in the hopes of unifying the African-American community. Karenga combined multiple harvest celebrations to make Kwanzaa, and picked the seven principles himself. They are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagula), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). Each day of the holiday is dedicated to a different principle, as well as a different symbol. The symbols are crops (mazao), a place mat (mkeka), an ear of corn (vibunzi), seven candles (mishumaa), the candleholder (kinara), the unity cup (kikombe cha umoja), and gifts (zawadi).
During Kwanzaa, participants wear colorful traditional African clothing, deck their houses out with African art, sing, dance, and tell stories. Every evening they light candles, which is a time of reflection. And on the night of the 31st, families and friends group together for a huge traditional African feast, which is called a Karamu. Also, apparently I’ve been saying the Kwanzaa greeting wrong my entire life—it’s supposed to be “Joyous Kwanzaa!” instead of “Happy Kwanzaa!”
The number of people who celebrate Kwanzaa has been estimated as anywhere between 2 million and 30 million in America alone. With that many participants, I’m feeling sort of sheepish for having previously not known much about the holiday at all. If you’d like to teach your child about this holiday, I would recommend either “Together for Kwanzaa” by Juwanda Ford, which is beautifully illustrated, or “Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa” by Donna Washington. Both would be great books to read aloud to your child.
Speaking of reading aloud to your child, I recently found a great one by the New York Times that discusses recent studies whose results reveal the benefits of reading aloud to your child. The article points to studies done across the nation that found that the three main traits that all the most voracious young readers seems to share are restricted online access, time for independent reading in school, and parents who regularly read aloud to them.
Only a couple years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that it would begin recommending that every parent read to their child starting at birth. The first three years of a baby’s life are crucial in terms of brain development, and reading aloud to your baby will increase their vocabulary and improve their language and cognitive skills. (Plus, it can be a nice break from baby-talk for the parents.)
However, parents should not stop there. Reading aloud to your child is equally important throughout elementary school, as it creates a positive association with books that will stick with your child for the rest of their life. One of the studies discussed in the article found a strong link between children who read more heavily and children whose parents read aloud to them throughout elementary school. And children who fall behind on reading in the first couple years of elementary school have to struggle to achieve even average levels of reading skill. This is especially dangerous for lower-income children, who hear an average of 30 million words fewer than their more well-off counterparts by age 4, and can identify 30% less of the letter names.