What’s in print and in stores that would interest a toddler, preschooler, school-age child, or adolescent?
By Janice Harayda
Okay, grandparents. You, too, aunts and uncles. You’ve found a darling pair of OshKosh overalls, slipped some cash into a festive envelope, or splurged on a big gift a child’s parents couldn’t afford. Now you want to wrap up a book. Here are some general tips, followed by ideas about what migh suit different ages.
Remember what Dr. Spock said: You know more than you think you do. Don’t assume you can’t find books children will love because you can’t keep up with their interests. Some books have a timeless appeal. Think about what you loved to read at different ages – Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit” tales, Dr. Seuss rhymes, a book of world records. All of these still make wonderful gifts.
Knock a year or two off the suggested age range. The age ranges on children’s books are notoriously unreliable, particularly for good readers. Many 7-year olds have outgrown picture books suggested for “4-to-8-year olds.” So it’s safest to be guided by the lower end of the age range, or knock a year or two off. It’s better to let children grow into books than to buy titles they may see as babyish.
Ignore the cheese factor. Let’s face it. Children love cheesy. Toddlers and preschoolers (and many older children) don’t have bad taste. They have no taste. And – surprise – when it comes to books, it doesn’t matter. Studies show that children who love to read grow up to be adults who love to read. That’s true whether they love to read Caldecott Medal–winners or comic books. So children of all ages need to have access to many books they will want to read over and over, even if the books are the literary equivalent of Gummi Worms.
An age-by-age guide to suggested titles
Babies need wash-off board books they can’t destroy. They especially love those that show faces of other babies or young animals. Erich Hill’s board books provide a bright and study backdrop for the gentle activities of Spot the Pop, beloved by young children. Titles in Hill’s “Spot” series include Good night, Spot (Putnam, $3.99), Spot’s Christmas Board Book (Putnam, $5.99), Spot Loves His Mommy (Putnam, $5.99) and Spot Loves His Daddy (Putnam, $5.99).
Most two-year-olds have never met a pop-up or lift-the-flap book they didn’t like. They can’t read, but can make objects spring up off the page, which heightens their involvement in a story. Pop-ups also make good gifts because most libraries can’t keep them on the shelves – children destroy them. Toddlers may eventually destroy your gift, too, but in the meantime they may fall in love with books. One of the newest pop-ups is The Jungle Book: A Pop-Up Adventure (Little Simon, $29.95), an adaptation of Kipling’s tale with illustrations by Matthew Reinhart. Ask a bookseller to show you less expensive and elaborate pop-up or lift-the-flap books, too.
Alphabet and Counting Books. Toddlers can’t have too many books that help them learn letters or numbers. A good alphabet book is Rosemary Wells’s new Max’s ABC (Viking, $15.99), the latest in a series about the brother and sister rabbits Max and Ruby. (Max and Ruby have been called, with only slight exaggeration, “perhaps the most famous bunny siblings since Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”) www.rosemarywells.com Ivan Bates adds sunny illustrations to the nursery rhyme “Five Little Ducks” (Orchard, $12.99), which helps to teach numbers from 1 to 10.
Beatrix Potter Books and Gift Sets. Who would want a child to grow up without knowing story of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Warne, $6.99)? If you just got a fat bonus you’d like share with a child, consider splurging on The World of Peter Rabbit (Warne, $160), a boxed set that has all 23 books in the series a handsome box with a pop-up of Peter and his friends inside the lid.
My favorite new picture book is Max’s Words (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16), which tells the story a boy who collects words in an inspired text by Kate Banks and pictures by Boris Kulikov. Other good choices for preschoolers:
Seek-and-find books. Preschoolers have a homing instinct for “Where’s Waldo?” books, but this series has drawbacks: All the main characters are white, and it has so much violence, some pages are almost sadistic. A better choice for many families is Lorna and Graham Philpot’s Find Anthony Ant (Boxer, $12.95) which asks children to find a brown ant named Anthony in underground mazes filled with amusing details such as a “Beetles’ Concert” and a jeans store called “Ants in Pants.”
Nativity stories. Gilt halos and foil Stars of Bethlehem abound in bookstores at this time of year. But the best version of the Christmas story for young children has neither. An American Library Association Notable Book, Julie Vivas’s The Nativity (Voyager, $7), by Julie Vivas tells story of the birth of Christ in the words of the King James Bible and deglamorized – and therefore realistic – illustrations (which include a frontally naked picture of the Christ child).
Young School-Age Children
Yes, they’re starting to spend more time on the computer. But you can still find books that will delight young children in grades kindergarten through 4.
A collection of knock, knock jokes. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Irish. Irish who? Irish you a merry Christmas.” This is deathless wit to many 5-to-9-year olds, so you almost can’t go wrong by wrapping up a book of knock-knock jokes, such as Bob Phillips’ The World’s Greatest Knock Knock Jokes for Kids! (Harvest House, $4.99), which has sold more than five million copies. If you can’t find it, you should be able to find a similar book easily. A book of hamster jokes could do the trick, too.
A children’s dictionary. Children may head straight for the Internet for homework, but that’s all the more reason to give them a dictionary that can remind them of the joy of browsing. One of the best is The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary (American Heritage, $17.95). Although officially recommended for 8-to-12 year olds, this book is best for 6-to-9 year olds.
Matt Christopher Sports Classics. Alas, “classics” is too lofty a word for this paperback-fiction series, which has titles such as Soccer Duel, The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, and Catch That Pass! (all $4.99 from Little Brown Young Readers). Nobody would confuse these books with art. But Matt Christopher has kept many boys interested in reading at an age when it really counts. Most bookstores have Matt Christopher books, but few have all, so if you’re looking for, say, one of his books about soccer, don’t wait until the last minute.
Adolescents and Teenagers
Think you couldn’t find a book that would interest that teenager with a navel right and green hair? Think again. A few ideas:
A good desktop dictionary. Don’t be deterred by parents who say that their adolescents or teenagers “look up everything on the Internet.” This is a case of, “If you build it into the family library, they will come.” Students are more likely to use a compact dictionary than a behemoth they can hardly lift, and one the best is The American Heritage College Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, $26.95), recently out in Fourth Edition with words like “blogosphere.” Among its strengths: Experts weigh in with “usage notes” in definitions of controversial words or points of grammar. The larger American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (Houghton Mifflin, $60) makes an excellent gift for the whole family.
A world record book. The book informally known as the Guinness Book of World Records has changed a lot. It’s now Guinness World Records 2007 (Guinness, $18) and has a holographic cover, big color pictures, and some records on slightly racier topics than it used to. But it still has all those bizarre categories like the “World’s Oldest Piece of Cake” and “Most People Reading Aloud Simultaneously in Multiple Locations.” And it can be a terrific gift for 11- to 13-year olds who are too cool to be shocked by records on topics like sex-change operations. Another favorite of adolescents is the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Special Edition (Scholastic, $14.99). This book includes some gross-out topics likely to delight Simpsons fans, such as a report on a belch said to be as loud as the sound of an airplane taking off.
A mystery or other novel in a series. Adolescents and teenagers often have a favorite series, such as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” novels or Robert Parker’s “Spenser” mysteries. Why not offer to pick up a title or two in a series beloved by someone on your list? Or introduce adolescents and teenagers to a series that builds interests they already have. Many teenagers enjoy Tony Hillerman’s mysteries about the Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, partly because these books show a side of the West they didn’t learn about in school. The latest Chee and Leaphorn mystery is The Shape Shifter (HarperCollins, $26.95), and earlier titles are widely available in paperback. Bill Peschel has many reviews of mysteries and thrillers, alphabetized by title and author, on his site Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com, so you can browse easily for potential gifts.
Finally, if you dislike the materialism the holidays, why not give a child or teenager an antidote? New Bibles have covers in hip-hop, camouflage, and other contemporary styles. Publishers hope to attract more children and teenagers to the Good Book and, to judge by sales figures, they’re succeeding in ways nobody could have imagined when Grandma and Grandpa were growing up.
Do you know a club or organization for grandparents whose members might like to read this post? Please forward it to the group and suggest that it link to One-Minute Book Reviews, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com. More reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on this site.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.
(c) 2006. Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.