The regrettable truth is that Diwali didn’t hold nearly as much meaning for me during my childhood as it does now. In fact none of the Hindu holidays did, mainly because I never really understood their significance and why we celebrated them. Sure I enjoyed dressing up in fancy chaniya cholis and attending large-scale functions, socializing with family and friends, and consuming lots of Indian food (mainly dahi vadas!) while eagerly awaiting the delectable sweets that came at the end (mainly gulab jamuns!). I always loved dancing in the raas garbas, but I never really processed the fact that Navratri means “nine nights” or that for those nine nights we honor Durga and other female forms of the deity. I liked the way our house looked all glowing and glittering during Diwali, but I didn’t know much about Laxmi or Ram, Sita, and Ravan. And what kid doesn’t love throwing colored powders at everyone that crosses her path, but if you’d asked me about Prahlad or Holika, you’d have received a blank stare and then red powder flung in your face.
I knew the names and had seen many illustrations, but I didn’t really know the stories and how these stories related to the holidays. I’m not blaming my parents or anyone else for my ignorance; the only person to blame, a little bit, is myself because I probably could have and should have been more receptive to all the people who tried to teach me. I did try sometimes, but I found it difficult to connect to their accounts of their experiences that occurred in another time and place which seemed so far removed from where and how I was growing up. My grandparents and parents tried to teach me about India and Hinduism using their favorite books from childhood, but those books looked and sounded nothing like the ones I was used to reading or studying. Now, of course, I treasure those old Indian-printed books and pore over them with my own children. Thankfully they do enjoy looking at them with me, but they especially love reading the more-recently published children’s books that are intended to appeal to and educate their demographic. Since my eldest was born we have amassed quite a collection of children’s books about various Hindu holidays and I am very thankful to all of their authors for helping me to raise my children with and understanding and love for our culture. Since I’ve already done the dirty work of scoping out all the Diwali children’s books I could find, below I share our family favorites:
The Diwali Gift, written by Shweta Chopra and Shuchi Mehta
Initially I was a bit suspicious of this book because the main characters are three little monkeys named Suno, Dekho, and Jaano, and while their names are pretty cute they themselves look like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and not in a good way. :) But I’m so glad I gave the book a fair chance because it’s an adorable (albeit simple) story and does a good job of calling to attention various Diwali traditions. The premise is that Suno’s dadima sends the kids a surprise Diwali gift and their guesses about it reference Diwali customs such as new clothes, sparklers, diyas, and rangoli. I was pleasantly surprised by the revelation of the gift because it is meant to be used during the Laxmi pooja and enables parents to teach their kids about a more religious/spiritual aspect of Diwali. In fact the whole book offers plenty of opportunities for parents to teach their kids about the meaning and traditions of Diwali. This book is going to be my go-to Diwali gift for preschoolers and early elementary kids!
Lots of Lights, by Kavita G. Sahai
In this book we depart from monkeys and visit with cherubic, plush-looking elephants. The hathi siblings Ram and Saanvi tell us all about Diwali through a sing-songy rhyme and rhythm that will appeal to young readers and listeners. I appreciate how the book aims to educate all children about Diwali, not just Indian children, which is made clear early on when Mama hathi says: “Diwali is similar to Hannukah, but without the yamaka, and feels like Christmas glee, but without the big tree.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it sure is catchy. :) Actually the story does go on to be quite informative about the various reasons to celebrate Diwali and takes us through a brief introduction to the five special days: Dhan Teras, Choti Diwali, Diwali, Annakut, and Bhai Dooj. Both my kids and I appreciate the sweet and simple explanations and we think your preschoolers and kindergarteners will too!
Amma, Tell Me About Diwali!, by Bhakti Mathur
This is one in a series of Amma, Tell Me About books about various Hindu holidays and gods and goddesses and all the ones I’ve read are very informative and vibrantly-illustrated. The first half of the Diwali book is an excellent introduction to many of the traditions and values of Diwali (e.g., sweets, gifts, diyas, fireworks, Ganesh, Laxmi, etc.), and it also tells the story of Ram’s victory over Ravan. The second half of the book is more of a parable starring Laxmi and a poor seamstress. I love that the book concludes with this parable because it emphasizes the idea that while the rituals and traditions of Diwali are important and valuable,” Laxmi” will come to us only if we are honest, dedicated, and hard-working. I appreciate being able to use this book to teach my kids that vital lesson instead of having to outright lecture them. :) This book is one of my favorites for older preschoolers and elementary school kids.
In Andal’s House, by Gloria Whelan
I’m torn about this book. What I don’t like is that even though it was published in 2013, the illustrations appear outdated to me, and the characters look more like caricatures of Indian people. What I do like is that the setting of Diwali in Gujarat is actually a backdrop for a meditation on the Hindu caste system and the plight of the Untouchables. Kumar is a young boy living after the abolishment of the caste system but his grandfather still remembers how he had to beg for water from clay cups which were shattered after as no one would use them after Untouchables. Kumar's Brahmin friend Andal invites Kumar over on Diwali to watch the fireworks but Andal's grandmother is not so willing to let go of past prejudices. She refuses to allow Kumar to join the other boys, and only Kumar's grandfather can soothe Kumar's wounded heart with an inspiring speech that recalls Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambekhar. This book is great for when you're ready to introduce the pain and prejudice of the caste system to your kids.
Celebrate Diwali, by Deborah Heligman
Celebrate Diwali is from the National Geographic “Holidays Around the World” series. I’m a sucker for National Geographic publications, especially the photographs, and this book doesn’t disappoint in regard to the illustrations. It features Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs from all over the world celebrating the various traditions of Diwali, and in vibrant life and color. I appreciate the emphasis on the diversity of the populations that celebrate Diwali and all of the different ways, both unique and common, in which they celebrate. Admittedly I was hoping that the book would be more suitable for middle school kids but the explanations (all nonfiction) are fairly short and simple although thorough. All in all Celebrate Diwali is a good reference book for both elementary and middle school students (and their parents!) and the photographs alone make it a worthwhile purchase!