Hands down, there is no better gift for holidays or birthdays than a book. You can find a book to suit every interest, every taste, and your budget. You can always feel good about giving a book (unless you’re giving a gift to someone who lives in a Tiny House … ask first).
Here’s my list of suggestions for the holidays. It’s filled with books that are informative, beautifully illustrated or photographed, useful, well-written, but mostly books that can be savored or cherished, with uplifting stories.
And if you’d like more suggestions, my best advice is to walk into your public library and talk to the children’s librarians there. Tell them about the children in your lives, their interests, the kind of books they like to read, or if they haven’t yet met the right book to turn them on to reading. You’ll be amazed by the good suggestions these library angels will give you.
I’m going to break these out into the type of reader I think will be most appreciative. You’ll find links to longer reviews scattered throughout. And I’m going to keep adding to this list up until the end of the year. People are celebrating holidays at many different times.
In love with picture books
written by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Beth Krommes
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
I think this ranks up there in my list of favorite picture books of all time. It works on so many levels, but mostly it speaks of love and yearning and beauty and grace. It is a simple story of a little girl who wishes for a snow day so her family can be together. Joyce Sidman’s story is exquisite. Beth Krommes creates a winter everyone can love and appreciate with her scratchboard illustrations. The color palette, the texture on the page, and the snow! Has there ever been such glorious snow? A perfect gift book for young and old.
Frank and Lucky Get Schooled
written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow Books, 2016
“One day when Frank could not win for losing, he got Lucky. And one day when Lucky was lost and found, he got Frank. Both of them were just pups. They had a lot to learn.” Life, at its best, is one big learning adventure. Frank and Lucky grow together, each teaching the other. We hear the story in both of their voices. Life is explore through learning: Chemistry, Taxonomy, Reading, Math. So many questions and so little time. Learning follows these two wherever they go. They have fun. But how does it all fit together? Ah, that’s the adventure. There is so much to look at and think about in this book … and Lucky makes the adventure fun. A great book for exploring together as the first step in planning your own learning adventures. Inspired!
Henry & Leo
written and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
This is such a wonderland of a book. I finished it and immediately started again at the beginning. And yet again. The pages are filled with details that are irresistible, inciting curiosity and storytelling. The story is a comforting one about a young boy, Henry, who ferociously loves his stuffed lion, Leo. The family goes for a walk in the Nearby Woods and … Leo is lost. Henry is beside himself, worried about Leo alone in the woods. His family comforts him by saying that Leo isn’t real, which is no comfort at all of course. But something very real and mystical happens in those Woods and Leo finds his way back to Henry. Pamela Zagarenski paints this book with lucious foresty and night-time colors, with pages so soft and textured you know you can walk into the scene. She includes her trademark crowns, critters large and small, windows, and those teacups. What does it all mean? As our brains look for answers, we create our own stories. It’s magical.
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth
written by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes
illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Chronicle Books, 2012
A story based on Hindu mythology, an adorable Ganesha and his friend Mr. Mouse are all about the candy. In particular, Ganesha wants a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Ladoo (candy) and he wants to bite down on it. Mr. Mouse warns him that it’s a jawbreaker. And soon Ganesha has broken his tusk. Luckily, he happens upon a poet who advises him to use his tusk to write down the Mahabharata, a long, ancient, Sanskrit poem about the beginning of things. Ganesha is described as a “Hindu god. He’s very important and powerful. And a tad chubby.” And that sets the tone of the book. Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is a feast for eyes, mind, and imagination. Patel, an artist and animator with Pixar, creates illustrations unlike anything I’ve ever seen before … you’ll enjoy poring over them.
Luis Paints the World
written by Terry Farish
illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
Carolrhoda Books, 2016
When an older brother enlists in the army to “see the world,” young Luis is uncertain. How could his brother want to leave their family and their neighborhood? How could he want to leave Luis? Will he come back again to play baseball and eat his Mama’s flan? Luis begins painting a mural on a wall in their neighborhood, hoping to paint the world so Nico won’t need to leave home. He paints and paints with a good deal of skill. Yet Nico does leave home. Missing his brother, Luis continues to paint his heart onto the wall. Soon his friends, family, and neighbors join him in painting. Will Nico come home again? The author, Terry Farish, based her story in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where she was a public librarian. The city is famous for the murals and outdoor art found throughout the town. For a heartwarming story of love and artistic expression, this is the right choice.
Monster & Son
written by David LaRochelle
illustrated by Joey Chou
This is an ideal book for dads to read aloud to their little sons. Yetis, werewolves, monsters of every shape and shiver, this is a bedtime story in spite of the subject matter. The illustrations are calming and detailed, even sparkling, yet perfectly suited to the monster fan. David LaRochelle’s text is fun to read out loud and Joey Chou’s artwork is painted with calm blues and purples and sleepy monsters.
For anyone who loves the North Woods, no matter where those woods may be, this is a heart-calling tale of a grandmother who knows she belongs in the woods and a granddaughter who is fascinated by what her grandmother knows and how she lives. Aimée Bissonette’s story is so well told that it feels universal. We all know someone like this girl and her grandmother. We hope we understand what it means to be so connected to place. Claudia McGehee’s scratchboard illustrations are an integral part of the experience of this book. The animals, trees, plants, the boundless night sky, the warm fire … there’s so much to love here. North Woods Girl will lead to good inter-generational discussions and foster good memories of your own special places.
On One Foot
written by Linda Glaser
illustrated by Nuria Balaguer
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2016
A familiar tale to many Jews, this story of the not-quite-a-fool who seeks a rabbi (teacher) who can teach him while standing on one foot (I’m guessing because the student would like the teaching to be short, even though he says it’s because he wants his teacher to be the best) is an active parable for the most important lesson in the world. Each successive teacher derides the student for asking them to teach the Torah on one foot, telling him that not even the famous Rabbi Hillel could do such a thing. When the student finally meets Rabbi Hillel, he is astounded by the simplicity of the lesson, one that each of us can live and share. The cut paper and mixed media illustrations are fitting for long-ago Jerusalem, showing both wit and empathy.
A Poem for Peter
written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson
Probably my favorite picture book of 2016, A Poem for Peter tells the story of the growing up and older of Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz, who is “Born under Hardship’s Hand, into a land filled with impossible odds.” He began paintings signs for stores when he was eight years old. An introduction to the Brooklyn Public Library opened the world to him. It’s a biography written poetically and every word is worth savoring. We know him now as Ezra Jack Keats and he created A Snowy Day, which is one of the most beloved books of all time. His life is painted here by Fancher & Johnson, who small touches on each page of their illustrations that remind us of Keats’ genius, his work with collage and color and shapes and textures. It’s a lovely, beautiful, magical book. It should be on your family’s bookshelf, ready for reading again and again.
written by Margi Preus
illustrated by David Geister
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016
The weather! In many parts of the country, it is increasingly a factor in our everyday life. Here in Minnesota, it is what strangers talk about before anything else. Friends exclaim in e‑mail and by phone about the effect weather has on their lives. When family gathers, the first topic of conversation is the weather (and how they drove to the gathering place). Margi Preus tells the story of a storm approaching with traditional weather signs and folk sayings. Bees flying in large numbers into their hive? “Look at those busy bees,” Sophie exclaimed. “They know it’s going to storm.” Dan watched the bees flying into their hive. “That’s true,” he said. “You know what they say: A bees was never caught in a shower.” All kinds of intriguing tidbits are woven into this weather story, set at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior at the beginning of the twentieth century. David Geister’s oil paintings are suffused with light, family love, the varying moods of the Lake, and the final, satisfying storm scene. You know the weather-watchers in your family. This will make a welcome gift.
Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Kids
edited by Susan Snively, PhD
illustrated by Christine Davenier
MoonDance Press, Quarto Publishing Group, 2016
For a beautiful introduction to the poems of Emily Dickinson, this book invites reading out loud, discussion, and turning the pages in appreciation of Christine Davenier’s art. The poems are accessible by children and their adults. Arranged by the seasons of the year, the pages offer commentary and definitions for important words to aid in your conversations about the poems. It’s a book that will be read and re-read in your home.
Miss Muffet, or What Came After
written by Marilyn Singer
illustrated by David Litchfield
Clarion Books, 2016
Think you know all about Miss Muffet? That tuffet? That spider? Think again, mes amis!
This oh-so-delightful book will have you smiling, laughing, heart filling with awe at the poet’s and illustrator’s mastery … but most of all falling in love with a story you never knew. That short nursery rhyme? Pull back from the scene (I easily see this as a staged play, readers theater or with props and costumes) and realize that Miss Muffet (Patience Muffet) and the spider (Webster) live in a larger world of sister, mother, rooster, fiddlers, a king, and many lively neighbors. These are easily understandable poems and poetry that is fun to say out loud and poems that tickle our funny bones. David Litchfield manages to use mixed media in a way that pulls us into the story and has us touring Pat Muffet’s world. Just gorgeous. It’s all so satisfying. Children will enjoy reading this themselves, with friends, acting it out, and taking part in a classroom performance. Such possibilities!
good family read-alouds
written by Nikki Grimes
Garvey feels as though he’s constantly disappointing his father. Sports are his dad’s way of relating and he has high hopes for Garvey becoming a football player or a baseball player or … something in a sport uniform. Garvey, on the other hand, enjoys reading and music and science. How does he show his dad what matters to him? This is a book that is optimistic and funny and hopeful. Even though Garvey consoles himself with food, becoming heavier and heavier, he is drawn outside of his funk by his interests. He can’t resist. And his father finally sees what’s important to his son. A novel written in verse, this makes a good book for the family to read out loud.
Making Friends with Billy Wong
written by Augusta Scattergood
Scholastic Press, 2016
When Azalea’s mother and father drive her to Arkansas to help her injured grandmother, Azalea is not thrilled. She contemplates being lonely for an entire summer and having nothing to do … and her grandmother, whom she hardly knows, is cranky. Even though she yearns to go home, she is drawn into the neighborhood by a boy with a boundless spirit and a curiosity to match her own. There is a mystery to solve and the two kids become friends while they’re figuring things out. It’s a heartwarming book and one that brings to light an immigrant story that isn’t well-known.
written by Mary Knight
Scholastic Press, 2016
Curley Hines lives with his grandpa in Wonder Gap, Kentucky, settled in the Appalachian Mountains. His Papaw gives him a word each week to learn and decide where it fits into his life. For people who love words, this is a book that enchants with its word choices. Curley has a best friend. He believes he’s in love with Jules but at 15 it might be a little early to know. And then Jules is entranced with the new kid in town, an urban kid, J.D., and Curley’s life is taking an unexpected turn. Even these changes pale in the face of a more threatening change: the coal company that employs so many of Wonder Gap’s residents wants to tear down Curley and Papaw’s mountain in order to get at the coal inside cheaply. All three of the kids get involved in Saving Wonder. This is an uplifting story that will have you cheering while you’re reading.
written by Barbara O’Connor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
Charlie Reese is a girl whose parents have abandoned her. Her father is in jail and her mother suffers from a depression that has her forgetting about Charlie for days on end. Child Protection Services sends Charlie to live with her Uncle Gus and Aunt Bertha who are as nice and loving as any kid could want. But Charlie wants to go home. She wants a family who loves her. In fact, she searches every day for something lucky that allows her to make that wish. She’s angry about her new home. She hopes it’s temporary. So she’s resistant when Howard, a kid with an up-and-down walk, does his best to reach her, to make her his friend. And she’s a little resistant when a stray dog, who she names Wishbone is as hard to reach as she is. It’s a wonderful story of a group of people coming together to form a family that’s made with love. These characters will take up a place in your mind and your heart for a very long time. And isn’t that a magical book cover?
can’t get enough of biographies
Let Your Voice Be Heard:
The Life and Times of Pete Seeger
written by Anita Silvey
Clarion Books, 2016
At this very moment, many of us, children and adults alike, are looking for a way to make a difference in our world. We’d like to show that love is stronger than any talk or action done in hatred. Young and old, we’d like to show that we are willing to stand up and let our voices be heard. There is no better example than the life of Pete Seeger. Anita Silvey writes this book in a way that shows how hard it was for him to perservere but he stood by his principles for nearly nine decades! Even when he was beaten down by the government, he was resolute. And he sang songs by the people, for the people, to inspire the people and bring them together. This book is written so it can be read by anyone ages 9 and older (adults will find this book worthwhile, too). I highly recommend it as a family read-aloud and discussion starter but it’s so good that reading it individually works, too.
Six Dots: a Story of Young Louis Braille
written by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Boris
Random House, 2016
When a terrible accident blinds him as a child, Louis Braille’s world turns dark. He sets out to get along in the world. “My family did what they could. Papa made a wooden cane. … My brother taught me to whistle … My sisters made a straw alphabet. Papa made letters with wooden strips or by pounding round-topped nails into boards” With his mother, he played dominoes. But he wanted to read books. Six Dots is the story of Braille’s journey to create a code that the blind could read. Louis Braille was a child inventor and this biography leads us to appreciate how significant his invention was and how much it continues to matter in the world today. Bryant’s text, written in free verse, makes the reading lyrical. Kulikov’s illustrations give an understanding of the darkness and the light in this blind inventor’s world. Six Dots fits well into our list of uplifting gifts. [Hidden Giveaway: the first person to send us an e‑mail requesting this book will receive a copy of Six Dots, signed by the author. Be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you the book.]
Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White
written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Are you a fan of Charlotte’s Web? Stuart Little? The Trumpet of the Swan? One Man’s Meat? Here is New York? E.B. White wrote books that are considered classics today, loved with a fierce wonder for their characters and emotions. In a work of love and art, Melissa Sweet shares the story of his life from childhood through adulthood as he learned to love books and writing. It’s the story of a man of words who lives so closely with them that he co-authors Elements of Style, a standard reference. There are details here that every fan of his books will want to know. Best of all, the book is done as perhaps only Melissa Sweet could, making collages out of found objects, White’s papers, and original (and charming) drawings. There are Garth Williams’ original sketches and photos of the people in E.B. White’s life. This book is a treasure, one you can share with many people on your gift list. Perhaps you can bundle it up with a copy of one of his books listed earlier, choices for both children and adults.
just the facts, please
Science Encylopedia: Atom Smashing,
Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More!
National Geographic, 2016
I think every person on your gift list should get one of these! Seriously, whether you love science or don’t want anything to do with it, you will like this book. You will dip into the book somewhere and then you’ll find yourself thumbing through, being caught by this and that tidbit. Here’s my full review of this encyclopedia.
How Things Work
National Geographic, 2016
As if the Science Encyclopedia isn’t cool enough, this book, also published by National Geographic, has astounding information in it. This quote from the beginning of the book wraps things up so well and tempts you to pull at the tail of the bow: “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.” Read the full review and buy this book for every kid (and maybe an adult or two) who love to know how things work. Because this book reveals all.
adults who breathe more fully around children’s literature
Comics Confidential: Thirteen Novelists Talk
Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box
interviews by Leonard S. Marcus
Candlewick Press, 2016
If you have the smallest bit of interest in comic books and graphic novels, you will find yourself drawn in by the interviews in this book. Marcus is a veteran at asking the right questions and his chosen subjects are the people who create books that kids and adults stand in line to read. You’ll hear from Harry Bliss, Catia Chien, Geoffrey Hayes, Kazu Kibuishi, Hope Larson, Danica Novgorodoff, Matt Phelan, Dave Roman, Mark and Siena Cherson Siegel, James Sturm, Sara Varon, Gene Luen Yang. Each one of them contributes a self-portrait, a comic written and drawn especially for this book, and there are sketches that accompany the interview. It’s a visual book about a visual medium created by visual artists who know how to tell exceptional stories.
Picture This (25th anniversary edition)
Chronicle Books, 2016
If you’ve ever felt that you like the art in a book but you don’t know why, this is the book for you. If you know teachers who regularly read out loud to children, this is the book for them. First written 25 years ago, Molly Bang has revised her guide to show us in clear language and pictures how the art in our favorite books works its magic. The way a page is arranged, the perspective, the focal point, the emotion, the mood, all of these can change the way we experience a book. We can understand what it is that we’re looking at in ways we never understood before. This is a very special book to give as a gift to someone you love or to yourself.
cook it up!
Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book
by Betty Crocker (!)
illustrated by Eric Mulvaney
Hungry Minds, 2002
I received this book in 1964 with an inscription from my grandmother, who wanted me to have “the gift of cooking food everyone will love.” It’s hard to go wrong serving cookies and the recipes in this book are classics. You’ll find Chocolate Chip Cookies, Toffee Squares, Krumkake, and Sugar Cookies. Good photographs show you how to decorate them and suggest how to serve them. Your burgeoning baker will spend hours planning, considering which cookies to make, and mixing things up in the kitchen!
Kids in the Holiday Kitchen
by Jessica Strand and Tammy Massman-Johnson
photographs by James Baigrie
Chronicle Books, 2008
For those who celebrate Christmas, this book has loads of recipes that are fun to decorate, good to give as gifts, and will help to keep the holiday buffet well-supplied. And it’s not just food. There are crafts included to decorate a soap bar for a gift or dress up gift tins. A good idea for the cooking-inspired child on your gift list.
Everyday Kitchen for Kids: 100 Amazing Savory and Sweet Recipes Your Children Can Really Make
by Jennifer Low
Whitecap Books, Ltd.
If your child’s wish is to appear on Food Network, here’s a head start. In addition to being delicious and easy to make, these 100 recipes are all about safety. None of the methods call for sharp knives, stovetop cooking, or small motorized appliances. All the recipes are kid tested and each one is accompanied by a full-color photograph.
crafts are the stuff of life
Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Trucks and Trains
LB Kids, 2005
Using simple shapes and lines and putting them together in thousands of different ways, anyone can draw. And in constructing these pictures out of those shapes and lines, they will find confidence in creating their own drawings. A part of it is practice, but a part of it is seeing how things are put together and Ed Emberley is a master at this. He is a Caldecott Medal winner and the author of many fine picture books, but it is his drawing books that many children cherish because that’s how they learned to draw! It’s an ideal book for a gift because with a pack of colored pencils and paper the fun can begin immediately!
51 Things to Make with Cardboard Boxes
Quarto Publishing Group, 2016
Gather up cereal boxes and chocolate boxes and match boxes and large boxes and small boxes and paint and googly eyes … to create dinosaurs, chickens, houses, and robots. Then make a giraffe and a hippopotamus and a construction crane … all out of boxes! The book has step-by-step instructions in both words and pictures that will help you and your children create fifty-one different projects. My only quibble with this book is that I would like measurements so I know which kind of boxes will work best … but perhaps the author wanted the size to be variable. I would have loved this book as a child. I suspect there’s crafty and building children in your life as well. There’s hours and hours of fun (and cereal-eating) ahead.
Look for this company’s 51 Things to Make with Paper Plates as well. Using paper plates and paper bowls (and googly eyes) there are many more creatures to be brought to life with these inexpensive construction tools.