I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed... -- Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything
It's not just me, is it? Faced with the task of buying one or more THINGS per family member or dear friend - determining what that THING shall be, finding it, pricing it, procuring, storing, sometimes hiding it, then processing it via gift wrap and tags - doesn't everyone get a little Doblery? After all, he gives her his heart - something he had to neither shop for nor wrap. She gave him a pen.
But, for better or for worse, we're giving gifts. And you know what will make you feel a little better about participating in this annual collective shuffling of goods bought sold and processed? If those goods are actually, you know, GOOD. Like books.
Read on, babies!
Giving books makes you feel like you are passing along knowledge as well as matter. And abundant research tells us that each book that enters a child's house to stay has an incremental positive effect on that child's school performance - whether it's the 5th book or the 500th. In fact, this is one of the goals of Turning Pages, the family reading group at the Baltimore County Detention Center where I am a volunteer. In addition to giving incarcerated dads extra opportunities to maintain strong bonds with their children, we aim for each child to finish the program with 20-25 self-selected books that are theirs to keep.
So before we get to the books that you might give your children and friends, here are a few groups that give books to kids you don't even know. I tend to donate to First Book every year - most of our adult family members don't need another nerdshirt or wine caddy (don't get me started on wine caddies), so I donate to First Book in their names and they get a nice e-card. RIF will do the same. Both organizations leverage your donation into lots and lots of books and other resources for children in low-income communities. Here are some more:
- Room to Read builds libraries and schools around the world, with a focus on literacy and on girls' education.
- Reach Out and Read is a network of medical providers who incorporate books and literacy information into pediatric visits. Believe you me, parents are the ones you have to convince.
- Pajama Program concentrates on kids living in shelters, distributing new pj's and books.
- United Through Reading lets deployed members of the armed services record videos of themselves reading to their kids, reducing anxiety for the kids and helping to maintain a feeling of closeness for the military parent.
- Turning Pages is a family reading program at the Baltimore County Detention Center that teaches incarcerated dads about early reading skills and brings their kids into the detention center for up-close, book-centered visits with dad.
If you, like me, have a lot of books that you could cheerfully let go of, bag those suckers up and donate them. Here are some places I have found that don't mind accepting a shopping bag of lightly used kids' books:
- the pediatrician's office
- the barber
- the hair salon
- certain restaurants (ask!)
- your kid's school library or daycare center - but don't let it bug you if they don't want the books or give them away to students. Frequently, the work involved with labeling a book and adding it to the library database is not within a school library's time budget.
AND NOW. Let's hit our local independent bookstore and slap down some plastic! I visited the Ivy Bookshop and The Children's Bookstore and asked their children's specialists, "What has come out this year that YOU would like to give a kid?" Some of their suggestions are in an upcoming Baltimore Sun column (and in the Sun's Gift Guide). For unadulterated.us readers, however, I have expanded that list, and included a number of... more idiosyncratic suggestions. In loose age order, these are the books I would give a kid:
Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McDonnell. Let's start with something lovely and warm for your preschool friends and their parents. This has got to be one of the most perfect bedtime books I've ever come across - it starts with a little energy, has a terrific rhythm to it that isn't too sing-songy, and then winds down gently. So satisfying, and Patrick McDonnell's illustrations have never been better. Glowing watercolors pep up his great little pen and ink figures - all the visual emphasis is on the characters, so every perfectly-crafted slump of shoulder or exuberant hop pulls us right in.
Tough Guys Have Feelings Too by Keith Negley. I have only seen a PDF of this book but I LOVE IT. Whether or not you need a picture book that validates emotions and their expression to small people who feel ashamed or overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, frustration, or disappointment, you need this book. If only to remind YOU that sorrow and anger are natural parts of a full emotional life. Does not hurt that the illustrations recall the credit sequence of The Incredibles.
Jingle Bells: A Magical Cut-Paper Edition by Niroot Puttipipat. Soooooo pretttttyyyyyyy. Talking to the owner of The Children's Bookstore last month, she admitted, "People don't really want anything new for Christmas. They want tradition, they want what they knew when they were kids." Makes sense. So it makes sense to recommend a FABULOUSLY illustrated version of the one carol EVERYBODY knows. Bonus: "Jingle Bells" is not even technically a Christmas song - it's for everybody! Wait, what am I saying? That's bullcrap. I shouldn't try to kid myself - Christmas owns "Jingle Bells," just like Christmas owns "Frosty the Snowman" and the sound system at the farmer's market and Starbucks coffee cups, no matter what image is not printed on them.
Snowflakes: A Pop-up Book by Jennifer Preston Chushkoff. Speaking of pretty. Loaded with glitter and technical innovation, with more pop-ups for the buck than most (check out the bonus pop-ups in the corners), this is the other engineered book I am a sucker for this year.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Serious, but with a happy ending. A little weepy, in a good way. Oskar is all alone in New York City, having been sent to America by his parents after Kristallnacht. It's the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, and as Oskar makes his way north on Broadway he is touched by the kindness of strangers both rich and poor. Including Eleanor Roosevelt, if you look closely.
Miracle on 133rd Street by Sonia Manzano, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. A neighborhood full of people suffering through standard December crap - money's tight, the weather's cold, grown children can't make it home for the holidays - are brought together when Jose and his dad bring home an enormous Christmas Eve roast. I am a person who participates in roasting a whole pig on New Year's Day in a block party that draws something like 100 people (including, last year, a U.S. Senator!), so I can attest to the community-building power of protein. Set in the Bronx neighborhood where Manzano grew up, the book brings together holiday traditions from many cultures.
A word about Sonia Manzano: before writing books for kids, she had a 44-year career playing "Maria" on Sesame Street. Maria! Loved her! During that time she danced, she sang, she got fake married, and she nursed her daughter on TV. She even learned American Sign Language and became educated on many aspects of early childhood development. And she is doing spectacularly in her "second" career as a children's book author. Give it up for Ms. Manzano.
Before After by Anne-Margot Ramstein & Matthias Aregui. You can approach this wordless collection of linked pictures as a story starter, training for inferential thinking, or just appreciate the neato pictures. However you think of it, it's one to revisit and enjoy again and again.
Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers. Been out a while, so they might have already seen it - but it's just SO cute. One spread per letter, with stories that stand alone, or link to each other, or rhyme - it's one ABC book that can be read and reread for years.
How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Robin Page and Steve Jenkins.
Everything Steve Jenkins touches is going to be great to look at - the guy makes his own paper and then cuts and tears it into shapes so he can make fabulous, textured collages of plants and animals from near and far. He frequently works with his wife Robin Page, whose humor and ability to explain natural phenomena are real assets. So in this book you'll get step-by-step instructions on how to catch fish with bubbles (helps if you are an aquatic mammal with a tail), spin a web, and, of course, detach your jaw so that you can swallow a whole pig.
I was reading this at work and left it lying on a counter at the reference desk. Half an hour later, the librarian who relieved me on the desk approaches brandishing the book. "Have you seen this? This book is fantastic!" So don't take my word for it, listen to young Bryon.
Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin, pictures by Daniel Salmieri. After a little boy gets his wish and is transformed into a robot, he realizes that he prefers being a boy -- oh wait, EERRrrt, stop! What are you -- don't aim that Robo-Sauce Launcher at me! AAAAA! AAAAGGG---- .... ... beep boop beep beep THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN TERMINATED. BUY THE BOOK FOR ANYONE WHO APPRECIATES SUBVERSIVE HUMOR. END TRANS.
Danger Is Everywhere: A Handbook for Avoiding Danger and Danger Is Still Everywhere: Beware of the Dog! (Danger Is Everywhere) by David O'Doherty and Chris Judge. These are just laugh-out-loud ridiculous, fun to share, great to browse, easy to revisit when you're between other books. Example: our main character, Dr. Noel Zone, would like to have lived "hundreds of millions of years ago, when there were only sponges." Why? Because "it was a time when there was NO DANGER. I mean, what's the worst thing that can happen when there are just sponges. CORRECT ANSWER: Nothing. You might get washed a little bit by accident."
Some Things I've Lost by Cybele Young. Dreamy. Arty. Our friend Sam, who is twelve, said, "I'm pretty sure this is what happens to the stuff I lose," when we unfolded the gatefold pages of this book to see how a neglected umbrella turns into a jellyfish and a misplaced wristwatch becomes a carpet of anemones. Unbelievable paper sculptures by this Canadian artist (who is represented by Forum Gallery, in case you were thinking of picking up a little something for the children's book reviewer in your life).
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe. Ok don't tell my kids, but this is one I actually did buy. Munroe is the creator of xkcd, and his book What If... has been read to ribbons in my house. How does Thing Explainer differ from those other projects? I'll explain and I'll use small words so that you'll be sure to understand, you warthog-faced buffoon. That's right - in this book, Munroe has limited himself to using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. This explains the lilting, rather Boovish syntax of the captions in the illustration above. If you've got a smarty-pants in your life, or even a would-be smarty-pants, this funny thing is the book for them.
Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney. I read Rhythm Ride while my husband was reading Once in a Great City by David Maraniss. Both books covered Berry Gordy and the unique factors that made Detroit ground zero for hit after hit after hit throughout the 60's and 70's. But Andrea's book reads like your cool auntie telling you a story, and Bob didn't finish the Maraniss book. So there.
The LEGO Architect by Tom Alphin. Or The LEGO Adventure Book, or The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!... the point is, buy the LEGO books put out by No Starch Press. They are better-constructed than the DK LEGO books (i.e. the page block won't break off the binding the first time the book falls off a table), and include beautiful builds, photographs of real objects and buildings, great - if complicated - instructions, and just... you can tell that the people involved in the making of these books are passionate and knowledgeable. Each one is a treat that respects the LEGO child.
The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook: Sweet Treats for the Geek in All of Us by Rosanna Pansino. Popular YouTube baker Pansino shows us how to make Red Blood Cell cupcakes, cookies that look like game controllers, and a really nice volcano cake. Now, any cookbook with this kind of gimmick is going to mostly be about decorating, and sure enough, there's a lot of the Three F's here: fondant, food coloring, and fine motor skills. My Ezra likes to bake, but he'd get repetitive stress injury if he tried to decorate 20-sided Dice Cookies. However, this book also contains plenty of recipes that are totally doable in an afternoon - without blowing your allowance in the Wilton's aisle at the craft store or going blind over a pastry tube. Let's just say Unicorn Poop cookies and Petri Dish Jellies are totally happening at my house. PLUS, Pansino cops to being dyslexic, so there are at least 6 process photos per recipe - more for the super complicated ones. It's a well-crafted cookbook with projects perfect for parties.
Why'd They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee. I have had this thing, published by National Geo Kids, in my house for the better part of a year, and I just love dipping in and out of it. In addition to great big beautiful pictures of the New Look and miniskirts and hoop skirts and everything in between, we learn about economic and geographic and political and technological factors that made whalebone corsets possible or allowed people to dye cloth blue or brought about pants for women. Any young person with an analytical turn of mind will love how cause and effect strings together in these stories.
Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Andrew Harmon. Visual representation is in a golden age right now. Everybody is all about the infographic, the efficient distillation of data and/or ideas into images that are easy to understand - and perhaps show that information from a different angle, one which gives us more insight into the material. Magazines plot trends onto hot-or-not axes, sandwiches are examined in exploded diagrams, hell, you can even try to parse the federal budget in a verrry complicated bubble chart.
The best of these products are art in their own right, hence everybody and their brother always trying to give me the U.S. Forest Service's Cocktail Construction Chart and Super Graphic. Firmly in this category is Plotted, a collection of essays and maps examining 19 works of literature. It's beautiful. Finely drawn and richly colored, full of detail, it invites the reader to sink in and examine every inch. The map of Crusoe's island evolves as the castaway explores it, names it and tames it. The cast of Hamlet creeps around the castle like little Billy dawdling on his way home in a Family Circle comic.
This book came into the house and I was thrilled, but I figured only I would be interested in it. Not so. Milo, who is 14, snatched it up. The first map is the Aegean as traveled by Odysseus in The Odyssey - an obvious choice, as the story correlates to place so closely, and a story that my son knows. However, once he got the concept - and this is where opening with The Odyssey is a genius move - he moved on to books that he doesn't know. "Hey, mom," he says. "who are the Willoughbys?" I was driving, so I asked him what he was looking at. "Well the guy's drawn their house like they're pretending they're fine and they have money, but behind the front wall it's all crumbling." So there you go. When and if he reads Pride and Prejudice he's going to be armed with insight into how the families jockey for stature and the consequences of the matches that the young people make.
A Beginner's Guide to Immortality: From Alchemy to Avatars Here's another one earmarked for a special friend - specifically, a kid who laps up the mythologies of our world. This'n casts its net wide in order to survey and sample an enormous number of stories from all over the world and all through time.
Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods: 20 Chilling Tales from the Wilderness by Hal Johnson, illustrated by Tom Mead. "When the first terrashot exploded, Mr. Thompson-Chang, who was trying to ride the fool thing, was turned to dust more or less. Miss Grundy was far enough away from the blast that she only suffered a ruptured eardrum, but she was, tragically, downwind, which meant she inhaled a vast quantity of terrashot spores (as well as, presumably, much of the remaining mass of her late boyfriend)."
There's a kid you know who is going to get a huge kick out of this bestiary.
I have a feeling a lot of kids are going to be getting copies of the new Book 1 of the new illustrated editions of Harry Potter. And rightly so. These visualizations of Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts castle, and old friends like Hagrid and Dumbledore feel just right - not the same as the movies, but with a similar immersive visual feeling, as if there's more behind every window and around the corner.
I would also spring for the North South Books edition of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books: The Mowgli Stories with illustrations by artist Aljoscha Blau or Tales From the Brothers Grimm: Illustrated by Herbert Leupin.
Something interesting that I discovered while picking through the best of the beautiful books: the vast majority of books I would spend my own hard-earned dollarhydes on are published by independent publishing houses - that is, NOT Penguin Random, Harper, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, or Macmillan. Why was this? Because little shops like Nobrow, Chronicle, Quarto, Workman, and Enchanted Lion pick books that align more closely with my somewhat non-mainstream tastes? Because the smaller houses put more emphasis on the physical production of their volumes, and use nice paper, stitched bindings, and other options that make a book feel like a treasure?
One of the very few books from a Big 5 publisher on this list is the Harper Design edition of Peter Pan, which includes delightful interactive illustrations by the Minalima design group, the folks who did a lot of the visuals for the Harry Potter movies.
Whichever way you choose to go, you'll love buying and giving these beauties for the kids in your life.