Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving

by Laurie Halse Anderson; ill. by Matt Faulkner

Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2002

40 pages

If you attended primary school in the United States, you probably know something about the origins of Thanksgiving–where the holiday originated, and why.  What you may not know is that, for much of the 1800s, Thanksgiving wasn’t a very big deal.

As Laurie Halse Anderson explains in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, the holiday was quite popular in 19th-century New England (where it originated) but largely ignored everywhere else.

That didn’t sit well with Sarah Hale, the nation’s first female magazine editor and a dedicated campaigner for abolition, girls’ education, and a variety of other progressive causes.

Thankful countries are great countries, she believed.  And, as the nation careened toward civil war, she saw a national day of thanks as a way to help unify a divided people.

So she wrote letter after letter after letter, and motivated her readers to do the same–for thirty-eight years.

First she convinced the states, which issued individual Thanksgiving proclamations, then she set her sights on the White House.  Five presidents turned her down before she found a sympathetic audience in Abraham Lincoln.  In 1863, he established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

It’s a truly inspiring story, and Anderson and illustrator Matt Faulkner tell it in a way that even the littlest kids can understand.

Anderson sticks with short but engaging sentences and clear, uncluttered language.  She repeats several times, like a refrain, that Hale was “bold, brave, stubborn, and smart.”  For his part, Faulkner embellishes the text with energetic watercolors that cleverly combine realism and metaphor.

Together, text and illustrations convey both the tremendous challenges Hale faced, both as a woman and as a concerned citizen, and her cheerfully unflagging spirit in the face of those challenges.

But what does all this mean to the little girls in our lives?

I think Anderson answers that question best.  At the end of the book, she points out that Sarah Hale effected major change at a time when women operated under tremendous legal, social, and cultural restrictions.

Today’s little girls still face some of those same restrictions.  My daughter has more (legally protected) opportunities than ever crossed Hale’s radar screen, but she’s still a rung down the ladder from the boys around her.

She’s barely six, and already I see her encountering the message that certain pastimes, toys, or interests are off-limits to or “not normal” for her because she’s a girl.  Or, worse, the message that boys are the active ones, the ones who make change and get things done.

But not according to Thank You, Sarah.

This is a book that tells girls to focus on passions, not restrictions.  To act, not shrink back.  To confront challenges, not fear them.

Thank You, Sarah tells girls that they can be women and still make waves.  That, like Sarah, they don’t have to order their lives around others’ (under)estimates of them.

As Anderson points out early in the book, Hale looked “like a dainty little lady.  Never underestimate dainty little ladies.”

That’s a message I can be thankful for.

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