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Children's Books for Christmas: An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco is a heart-warming realistic fiction story for older elementary ages.

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco is a heart-warming realistic fiction story for older elementary ages.

An Orange for Frankie Story Summary

The frigid, snow-covered outlying farmstead near early 20th century Lansing, Michigan is the setting of An Orange for Frankie, a children's Christmas story written by Patricia Polacco based on the experiences of her recent ancestors. This story is teeming with ebullient family energy, kinship, and an atmosphere where giving and charitable acts of service are so ingrained in the family's lifestyle that service is presented merely as part of a cheerful routine.

This story is a little long, even for a Christmas picture book, but the author captures the spirit of Christmas in a warm and loving family setting that makes you want to be part of the large, active, and cheerful Stowell family as you read about their challenges. Every year on Christmas Eve, Frankie's dad leaves the farmhouse to ride to Lansing, Michigan in a horse-drawn cart to meet the Florida train, packed with sweet, juicy, ripe oranges. These oranges are the focal point of the family's mantelpiece Christmas display, made from evergreen boughs from a freshly-cut Christmas tree filled with cookies, dried flowers, apples, and nuts.

Meanwhile, the family prepares to serve a large group of hobos who are riding the rails through this cold region of the country. The Stowell family, though otherwise poor, shares their bountiful harvest with the hobos. Steaming cups of coffee and hoecakes are made available to all the hobos.

Frankie, the youngest boy in the clan, sees a barely-dressed, ancient-looking old man among the hobos, a man in a threadbare coat and no shirt at all. Frankie takes pity on him and goes up to his room to find a sweater to give the man. He gives his best Christmas sweater to him, the one made by his oldest married sister, because it is the only one that is big enough to fit. Of course, he doesn't tell anyone, and he's sure that he'll get in trouble when everyone finds out.

As the day progresses, the snowy weather progresses into a storm of near-blizzard proportions, and the family's joyful anticipation of Christmas and their focus on their preparations for the school play turns to worry about the whereabouts of Frankie's father. But Mother, worried as she is, decides to press forward with the Christmas preparations and takes the family on an excursion to cut down a Christmas tree.

Telling you too much more of the story would be a huge spoiler, so I will say that at this point in the story, the author has built quite a bit of momentum towards the real "heart" of her tale. Frankie tries to do the right thing, but he gets into mischief one last time. The resolution to this story is a heartfelt example of a family coming together in unity to give generously of themselves.

Young children will identify with the predicament that Frankie ultimately finds himself in at the end of the book, and parents will want to share this story because the touching solution to Frankie's final problem is such a wonderful lesson in sharing, and exemplifies what Christmas is all about.

Sweet, juicy oranges were a luxury in early 20th century Michigan.

Sweet, juicy oranges were a luxury in early 20th century Michigan.

Lessons on Generosity and Other Reasons I Liked This Story

As a parent I felt this story showed a loving, large family (with nine children!) that was excited to celebrate Christmas and to receive the anticipated treat of the oranges, something that my family living in Arizona can hardly fathom as a treat...they are so common here. In fact, in our modern age of easy transportation, oranges are merely a symbol of a quaint, bygone era when people needed far less to feel fulfilled. On a broader scale the story shows a family living generously and joyously in a time of poverty when many people had far less than they needed.

"When are you going to go get spectacles, Ma?" Frankie was only half teasing.

"When pigs fly, son. We sure can't afford spectacles--we haven't finished paying off our winter hog!" she answered.

"If times are that hard fer us, Ma, then we sure can't afford to feed all them hobos every week," Will said.

Mrs. Stowell gave Will a withering look. "We had an abundant harvest. It don't cost us nothin' to share some of it with folks that could use it"

— Patricia Polacco, An Orange for Frankie

Joy Can be Found in Simplifying Christmas and Family Memories

This story, because it is based on a family history, is rooted in family memory and devoid of fantastic elements like fairy dust and magic. But that doesn't mean the story is missing Christmas magic. There's plenty of Christmas magic, and you and your family may just finish the book feeling a little more grateful for the simple things.

This book also shares an example of a family having an old-fashioned Christmas. If you are interested in simplifying your Christmas celebration at home and would like to point to a non-commercial example of a family celebrating Christmas, this book is for you.

My husband comes from a large, extended family, and we often gather on Christmas Eve to share our talents and spend time together. This book is an excellent selection for such gatherings and may just become a touchstone for an older relative who has their own stories to share about your family!

Themes and Motifs

  • Christmas
  • Generosity
  • Sharing
  • Simplicity
  • Family Stories
  • Christmas Sweater
  • Lansing Michigan
The Gift of the Magi by O'Henry

The Gift of the Magi by O'Henry

The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck

The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck

  • The Gift of the Magi by O'Henry. This famous short story has been made into a beautifully illustrated picture book. This classic Christmas tale about a young couple's sacrifice of their most prized possessions so that they can buy the perfect Christmas gift for each other ends in an ironic twist.
  • The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck. This story tells about a boy, his wish to receive a bike for Christmas, and the disappointment he feels when his wise grandfather tells him he will only receive a Christmas sweater, one made for him by his mother. This story shares elements with An Orange for Frankie, but differs in its message. This story is about appreciating the gifts we receive and understanding that time with family is far more important than things.
  • The Gift of the Christmas Cookie by Dandi Daley Mackall is another story about giving with a historical setting during the Great Depression. This Christian Children's story also ties the common family tradition of baking Christmas cookies and sharing them with neighbors with the story of the Nativity. Please click on the title to read my full review of this story.
  • King of Kings is a realistic fictional story by popular British novelist Susan Hill. As far as I can tell, this is her only foray into children's picture books, but it is one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories. The setting is an industrial English port city, and the protagonist is an aging widower who rescues an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. It is not directly religious, but it is a beautiful and touching story for Christmas which undboubtedly alludes to the nativity.
The Gift of the Christmas Cookie by Dandi Daley Mackall

The Gift of the Christmas Cookie by Dandi Daley Mackall

More Christmas Book Reviews

  • The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
    The Crippled Lamb by popular by Max Lucado and Liz Bonham is one children's Christian book about the nativity. This story about a little lamb who feels sad because his birth defect prevents him from joining the flock is a lovely straight-forward Chri

© 2010 Carolyn Augustine


Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on August 20, 2010:

Thank you very much!

Hello, hello, from London, UK on August 20, 2010:

Thank you for a wonderful review. Well done.

Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on August 18, 2010:

Thank you!

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on August 18, 2010:

My husband grew up in Marine City, MI - we lived back in the suburbs of Detroit in the late 1970's for about 2 years.....but aside from that,great review!

Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on August 17, 2010:

I'm afraid we're going to get a firsthand taste of this! We are moving to Iowa at the end of September! Guess that will transform me to a wannabemidwesterner...

On a side note, my husband lived in Lansing Michigan...served a two-year LDS mission in Upper Peninsula.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on August 17, 2010:

Being a lifetime Midwesterner Michigan catches my eye. There is something about the north country that creates sort of a love hate relationship with winter.

Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on August 17, 2010:

Thank You Dim,

When I lived in England during the early 1980s as an older child I met an older couple who was retired from the British military. They seemed ancient to me, but they were probably in their 70s. They grew a productive foood garden that was at least half of their large property. I wonder if this was a legacy of the shortage years?

My own grandmother on her farm in Indiana lived with far fewer luxuries during the 1950s than I do now, just because it is all so easily and readily available. This book is great and the young computer-playing, phone-owning, Wii generation needs to read it!

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on August 17, 2010:

Oh this was so lovely. It made me think of my dad who was so delighted to have a banana after world war 2

It was hard for me to grasp since bananas were everywhere during my childhood.

This book really is a MUST. Thank you. x

Michael E. Horton on August 16, 2010:

Great writing. Thanks for sharing.

Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on August 16, 2010:

Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind remarks and hope you enjoy the book when you read it!

Sam from Tennessee on August 16, 2010:

voted up & beautiful! Very well written, captivating--'attention getter', makes you want to read the book...