Posted on December 3, 2014 at 6:00 am
Buying books for young people is as stressful as it is fun. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my heart crushed by my nephew’s bemused face the year I bought him the boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve watched kids turn over books and then flip them open upside down, surreptitiously watching to see if money falls out. I’ve even experienced the sarcastic “oh, what can it be” as the recipient holds the obviously book-shaped object. Oh, you youngs with your video games and electronic gadgets. I would have given up my literary gifting long ago, except your mom assures me you love getting books as presents.
The thing is, kids are as particular as adults, and you can’t just give them any old book and expect it to be a hit. You also can’t give them something you loved as a child and expect the exact same level of enthusiasm. What I’ve learned is that you’ve gotta keep up with the times. And if you’re like me, the young people on your list are completely unique buying challenges. The following suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but might help with some of the discerning types who might be on your list:
For those just-born, teething, or maybe learning to walk:
You want a board book. And not just any board book — you want something that mirrors baby’s world and experiences. Toot and Tickle (both $6.99), by Leslie Patricelli, sweetly depict the shriek-y joy to be had tickling and/or passing gas. I Know a Lot! and I Am So Brave! (both $6.95), by Stephen Krensky, offer fabulously retro design alongside empowering messages (and a diverse cast of babies). Moving into picture books, toddlers will love Herve Tullet’s new book, Mix It Up ($15.99), which features the same red, yellow and blue dots of Press Here, but this time the theme is color mixing. Young fingers are encouraged to swirl the red and blue dot together. Go ahead, try it! Turn the page and it appears you’ve made purple! Magic! Tap to Play ($15.99) by Salina Yoon is a similar title, in which a red dot named Blip asks the reader to help him reach the goal and win the game. Bounce Blip. Tilt Blip. Shake Blip good and hard. Then turn the page to see Blip’s progress. And finally, you can’t go wrong with Wednesday ($17.95) by Anne Bertier, in which Little Round and Big Square are friends, but their friendship is threatened by Big Square’s tendency to grandstand (thus leaving Little Round out). What I love about this book is that Little Round sees a solution to his/her dilemma and simply acts on it. This is a charming exploration of shape, line, and playdate dynamics.
For the child who seems like they might be European*:
(*see also = adult picture book fans)
You know that kid. That kid has wooden toys, goes to a fancy preschool, and is already, like, ten times smarter than you. You are not going to get away with flashy colors, cartoon characters, or foil embellishments with this child. What you need is a modern day classic, something minimalist, sophisticated, maybe even a little avant-garde. The Lion and the Bird ($17.95) by Marianne Dubruc, fits the bill with the gentle story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden and nurses it back to health, only to find that a bird’s gotta do what a bird’s gotta do (namely, fly south). The minimal text and white space work perfectly with the soft colors and feathery lines to create a sense of brisk airiness and patient hope.
Great books for the whole family
These are great gifts if you’re visiting friends who have children, or if your own household loves collecting some of the year’s best books. Hug Machine ($16.95) by Scott Campbell is the endearing story of an affectionate little boy with hugs to spare whether you’re “square or long, spiky or soft,” (or human or cactus, for that matter). The artwork is purposefully simple, and the facial expressions of both hugger and huggee are sure to bring on the giggles.
I’m excited about Animalium ($35) by Jenny Broom and Maps ($35) by Aleksandra Mizielinksa, both from new publisher Big Picture Press. These are both gigantic books, books to sprawl out on the floor and pore over. Animalium is like a Natural History museum in a book, a gorgeous array of more than 200 of the world’s most remarkable “specimens.” Maps is more than (and not quite) an atlas, with generously annotated countries depicting cities, flags, famous personages, historical monuments, most popular names, and all sorts of similarly fascinating factoids.
The Book With No Pictures ($17.99) by Emmy Award winning writer and actor B.J. Novak, is just that. There are no pictures. There are, however, words that must be read aloud, every single one, no matter what. Even if the person reading aloud has to say things like, “I am a monkey who taught myself to read” and “blork, bluurf.” Preschool comedy gold in a genius-graphic-design package.
And I would be remiss in forgetting to tell you about The Secret Life of Squirrels ($17) by Nancy Rose. Squirrels. They’re just like us. And in Nancy Rose’s painstakingly photographed scenes of real squirrels interacting with squirrel-sized furniture, appliances, municipal objects and more, you get to see them doing such people things as “grilling” hot dogs and dropping letters in the mailbox. It’s as adorable as it is hilarious. If you know a family who loves YouTube videos of hamsters eating tiny burritos, this is the book for them (or yourself).
For the Minecraft-obsessed
Chances are, you will already know if someone on your guest list is obsessed with the blockular pleasures of Minecraft. The virtual world in which players explore and create cube-based constructions is completely addictive, especially to grade schoolers (roughly 7 to 12 years old). Blow their mines (sorry) minds with Minecraft: the Complete Handbook Collection ($31.96) from Scholastic. SCLD carries the individual volumes, the Essential Handbook, the Combat Handbook, the Redstone Handbook, and the Construction Handbook, which are in constant circulation. But up the wow factor and consider instead this handsome 4-volume set with a gold-embossed case and enough Minecraft tips to keep young builders busy for months.
For the Middle Grade fantasy fan
“Know thyself” would seem to be the motto of Pennyroyal Academy ($16.99), where princesses are trained to fight witches and knights are trained to fight dragons. But what happens if you’re a princess-in-training who was raised by dragons and knows nothing of yourself, not even your name? In this marvelous debut by M.A. Larson, the characters of the Brothers Grimm are real, the fighting and swordplay are nonstop, and a prospective student’s best chances of success lie in cultivating the qualities of “courage, compassion, kindness, and discipline.” This is fantasy at its best, blending wild flights of imagination with universal truths.
For the sensitive animal lover
Tuesday Tucks Me In ($16.99) was one of my favorite nonfiction titles of 2014, and while it might seem like an odd choice for a holiday gift list, there’s something about this book that makes me think it will find welcome in a lot of homes this season. Narrated by Tuesday, the golden retriever service companion of former U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan, Tuesday Tucks Me In describes the pair’s daily activities, from visiting the veteran’s hospital to navigating the streets and subways of New York to stopping for some well-deserved ice cream. Tuesday is a friendly presence in nearly every photo, and the bond between the former soldier and his dog resonates on every page. A section in the back of the book provides additional information about service dogs and the facility that trained Tuesday for duty.
Spirit’s Key ($16.99), by Edith Cohn, is as much a mystery, and even a bit of a ghost story, as it is an animal story. Twelve year-old Spirit Holden knows the gift of clairvoyance is in her blood, but harnessing it is a completely different matter. Still grieving the loss of her beloved dog, Sky, she sets out to find out why the wild dogs of Bald Island are suddenly dying. This debut novel has been favorably compared to Kate diCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, and is even garnering a tiny little bit of Newbery buzz. It’s perfect for introspective kids who like to unlock multiple layers of meaning in their reading.
What books are you gifting this holiday season? Let me know (or ask for a recommendation) in the comments!