I’ve been gathering up all the children’s books about family history that I can find. There are lots about family trees, and some about family heirlooms!
My Mother’s Pearls
Story and art by Catherine Myler Fruisen
My Mother’s Pearls was originally published in 1999. It’s out of print now but you can still find used copies on amazon. I got a copy from the library. The inside flap reads, “A young girl’s love of an heirloom opens a door of discovery to her rich and wonderful heritage. … My Mother’s Pearls beautifully evokes the special bond between mothers and daughters, and provides a priceless opportunity for children to learn about their own family tree.”
I set out to see if this book really would be helpful for teaching my children about family history.
My Mother’s Pearls is geared toward little girls. It taps into their love for jewelry, beautiful dresses, and getting ready with mom. Going back in time through seven generations, the young narrator shares short anecdotes from her grandmothers and great grandmothers who once wore (or played dress up with) the pearls. Each daughter and mother share a memorable moment – Marianne wearing the pearls to her daughter’s piano recital, Anna breaking the pearls and her mother Dede finding each one and fixing the necklace, and Rose emigrating from Scotland to America with the pearls in a secret compartment in the trunk. As the pearls go back in time, the mother daughter time becomes less moving but the historical fashions become more interesting. Susanna, who is wearing a colonial gown and bustle, received the pearls from her husband for a wedding present in 1788.
The story of great great grandma Anna breaking the pearls reminded me of “oscillating family narratives” that researchers Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush recommend sharing with children to help increase their self-confidence and resilience. It helps children to know they belong to something bigger than themselves; that their family experienced ups and downs and stuck together. All families have oscillating pasts, but it’s up to parents to select which stories to share with their kids and teaching what can be learned from them. We can create the narrative that defines our family.
My husband and I mostly share stories about our own grandparents, since we knew them. I’d like to include many more stories of our brave, kind, faithful ancestors from farther back in the tree. Then our kids will not only learn about our family’s narrative, but they’ll learn about history! Connecting our family’s past with the lessons they learn in social studies will help them internalize their knowledge of history and apply it to their future choices.
The narrator has her own set of pearls to wear when it’s dress up time and they remind her of all her grandmothers. Any girl reading this will immediately want to know about her own grandmothers and see pictures of them. So, before getting out this book to your children, gather up some pictures of your grandmas, great aunts, and great grandmas!
The last page of the book shows the girl putting her pearls on a doll with the question “who do you think will wear them next?” As all little girls love to pretend with their baby dolls, the young girl is looking forward to being a mother when she can share the pearls and precious stories that accompany them with her own daughter someday.
Catherine Fruisen doesn’t say whether or not the stories are true, but I suspect she has either a necklace or another heirloom that was passed down from a female ancestor, since she dedicated the book to “Marianne, Dede, Anne, Joan, Rita, and Graiken,” names of some characters in the book.
The illustrations are lovely. Each two page spread features the year the story is taking place and an understated image of mother and daughter. I especially like the depiction of the narrator’s 2nd great grandmother Dede standing on a ship deck clinging to her mother Rose with hope and anxious anticipation of their life in the new world. The immigrating ancestors in my family tree captivate my imagination. Bringing something of the old world with them, they seem to face the unknown new world with such courage.
I enjoyed this story more than my children. I felt that although my two year old daughter loved the dresses and my five year son old listened politely, the stories were more geared toward girls ages 3-8 who can relate with the narrator. I guess I’m still eight years old at heart, because I loved it! It inspired me to tell stories about my own family treasures and create a picture book for my children in a similar format following a female line back to colonial times.
Although the grandma anecdotes weren’t stunning examples of bravery, heroism, wit, or humor, they rang true. I felt as if they could have been real stories from the author’s family history. The story could have been more engaging but overall, it was charming!
Discussion questions for children and families:
- What is an heirloom?
- What makes an heirloom special?
- Why do you think the young girl likes hearing stories about the pearls?
- Why do you think the mothers and daughters in the book like spending time together?
- What would you do if your daughter broke your special family pearls?
- What would you like to pass down to your son or daughter someday?
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