Books for children and teens are not Snuggies. One size doesn't fit all. So when choosing books for young readers this holiday season, it helps to know their style. Maybe he likes roomy epic fantasy novels he can get lost in, whereas she prefers the more tailored fit of a contemporary story with realistic characters and situations. He loves the retro flair of historical fiction, while she craves the space boots of sci-fi. And everybody enjoys a funny book, right? Well, what kind of funny? Slapstick humor—the literary equivalent of a squirting bow tie—or more subtle, sly wit, like a pair of SpongeBob boxers under a three-piece suit?
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Fortunately, the closet is deep. There's a book (or two or twelve) on the shelf to suit the pickiest recipient in every age group, even those who claim they hate to read because they've tried on books that pulled or bunched or itched or bored them to sleep. The gift of the right book at the right time can transform a child into that most estimable of fashionistas: a reader.
So check out our shelf, grouped by age recommendation.
Speaking of wardrobes, who knew Mother Goose had such an extensive one? Picture book illustrator Petra Mathers brings together lesser known rhymes and beloved standards in her exquisite The McElderry Book of Mother Goose (96 pages, Simon & Schuster, $21.99, ages 5 and up). Mathers' artwork is whimsical and inviting, and she doesn't shy away from poignancy in her rhyme selections. In one spread, for instance, she pairs the plaintive "Bye, O My Baby" with the silly tongue-twisting "Betty Botter," while noting in the book's afterword that "a big part of Mother Goose is based on real events. … Naturally sad things happen alongside happy ones."
By now it's clear: Picture book artist Jon Klassen has a thing for hats and petty theft. This Is Not My Hat (40 pages, Candlewick, $15,99, ages 3 and up), Klassen's sly, darkly comic tale of a chapeau-stealing fish, follows his best-selling sly, darkly comic "I Want my Hat Back," in which a rabbit's fate exemplifies why it's not smart to pilfer caps from bears. Perhaps he'll move on to socks or mittens next?
Take "The Little Engine That Could" off the tracks, make him seaworthy and you've got Stephen Savage's Little Tug (32 pages, Roaring Brook, $12.99, ages 2-5). Little Tug may not be the tallest, fastest or biggest boat in the harbor, but when tall, big, fast boats need a boost, he's the guy for the job. Bold graphics, simple text and the affection that flows between the cheerful tugboat and his appreciative pals add up to a near-perfect book for preschoolers, who will relish the reminder that being small does not mean being unimportant.
The elves, the flying reindeer, the white beard, the red suit: These and other details in the Santa story are common knowledge. But Judi Barrett's Santa from Cincinnati (48 pages, Atheneum, $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, digs deeper into the legend to reveal that, at heart, St. Nick is really a down-to-earth Midwestern boy. This clever Christmas story from the author of the classic picture book "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" manages to humanize Santa — he went to college in the North Pole, chose his workshop because it had central heating — without detracting from his magic.
Blowing out the menorah or squishing the chocolate gelt doesn't count as good Chanukah etiquette, even if you're an Arizonasaurus. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague's How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? (40 pages, Blue Sky Press, $16.99, ages 3 and up) is the latest installment in their amiable picture book parade of dos and don'ts, as demonstrated by oversized "children" with scales and tales and claws. A Scelidosaurus in a yarmulke playing dreidel? Why not? As long as he's polite about taking turns.
There's someone creeping through the house at midnight, but it's not Santa. The shadowy figure in Nighttime Ninja (32 pages, Little, Brown, $16.99, age 3-6) by Barbara DaCosta, illustrated by Ed Young, scales walls with hook and rope instead of in a sleigh. His mission? Snack retrieval — or so readers discover when Mom turns on the kitchen light and confronts her sneaky warrior. The young boy's imaginative adventure unfolds in stunning cut paper and fabric collages that incorporate Chinese calligraphy and natural imagery.
Abe Lincoln's Dream (32 pages, Roaring Brook, $16.99, ages 5 and up) by
In the Center for Cartoon Studies' Adventures in Cartooning: Christmas Special (64 pages, First Second Publishing, $9.99, ages 4 and up) by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost, Santa thumbs his cherry nose at the digital age and enlists the magical cartoon elf's help in creating a "great comic for one and for all!" Poking good-natured fun at both traditional "sappy" holiday stories and the season's commercialism — their comic is "cheap for the naughty and free for the nice!" — this third in a trio of pro-comic book comics nudges children to follow Santa's example and see what they can create with pen, paper and inspiration.
Becoming a Ballerina (48 pages, Viking, $18.99, ages 6 and up) by author Lise Friedman and photographer Mary Dowdle follows along on a fairy tale come true — not the horrible kind — for 12-year-old Fiona, cast as Clara in the Boston Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. Beautiful color photos accompany Fiona's journey through auditions, rehearsals and the opening-night performance, as the text offers aspiring Claras insight into what it takes to play this coveted role. Says Fiona's older sister, who was Clara in two past productions, "Look, the most important advice I can give you is to genuinely have fun onstage."
It's not clear from Electric Ben (40 pages, Dial, $17.99, ages 6 and up), Robert Byrd's picture book biography of Benjamin Franklin, whether America's most famous Renaissance man was a dancer, but if not it's about the only thing he didn't do. Swimming, writing, newspaper publishing, politicking, inventing: His list of interests runs almost as long as his list of inventions, which includes everything from the lightning rod to swim fins to bifocals. Byrd's intricate illustrations, arranged in panels like a cartoon, and detailed text provide a well-rounded portrait of Franklin and show why he deserves his near-mythical place in history.
Legions of Lemony Snicket fans found it truly unfortunate when his "A Series of Unfortunate Events," after 13 volumes, came to an end. Who Could That Be at This Hour? (272 pages, Little, Brown, $15.99, ages 9 and up) is the auspiciously inauspicious beginning to Snicket's new series, "All the Wrong Questions," spoofing noir detective stories. "There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft," intones 13-year-old Lemony in the opening sentence, and he was "wrong about all of it." Readers can wrap themselves in Snicket's familiar humor as if it were a comfy old sweater and delightedly watch the hapless gumshoe's investigation unravel.
Like "Harriet the Spy," Newbery-winning author Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy (192 pages, Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99, ages 9 and up) features a
A powerful weapon with heart as well as bite provides the subject for seasoned children's nonfiction writer Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's Dogs On Duty (48 pages, Walker Books, $16.99, ages 7 and up) an engaging photo essay about the military's training and use of dogs in their operations. These faithful MWDs (Military Working Dogs) sniff out explosives, lie down across wounded soldiers to protect them and even parachute from planes. Children with family members serving overseas will find comfort in knowing that these incredible, loyal animals are on the job, helping keep their loved ones safe.
This year of the London Olympics and
Adam Gidwitz's irreverent, gleefully gory fairy tale mash-up "A Tale Dark and Grimm" gets a Part 2 — this time with Jack and Jill as the starring duo — in a companion volume, In a Glass Grimmly (192 pages, Dutton, $16.99, ages 10 and up). As in the first book, Gidwitz warns readers from the start that fairy tales were never meant to be cutesy or sweet. In fact, he says, original fairy tales were "horrible," as in "causing feelings of horror." But they were also "beautiful — like the gray and golden ashes in a fireplace. Or like the deep russet of a drying stain of blood." And, thanks to Gidwitz's unparalleled skill as a storyteller, here they are also horribly entertaining.
Though the spy
Sharon G. Flake's young adult novel Pinned (240 pages, Scholastic, $17.99, ages 10-14) gives voice to two unique characters: Autumn, a high school wrestling champion, the only girl on her team; and Adonis, the wrestling team's manager and a straight-A student, who was born without lower legs. Autumn is up front about everything, including her dismal grades, poor reading skills and her love for Adonis. Adonis is equally up front with his opinion that Autumn isn't smart enough for him. Still, he can't get her out of his mind. It's easy to connect with unpretentious Autumn, while not so easy, at first, to do so with haughty Adonis, which makes his narration all the more interesting. Flake is unafraid to create a complex, flawed, disabled character readers have to work to understand and like.
What's the best way to understand other people? The clichéd "walk a mile in their shoes" is something the main character of David Levithan's Every Day (336 pages, Knopf, $17.99, ages 12 and up) does, literally, every day — and not by choice. Every morning Levithan's 16-year-old narrator, A, wakes up in a different body. Male or female, gay or straight, popular or on the fringe: A has experienced it all; but what happens when A falls in love? Essential questions of identity and connection permeate this brilliantly conceived novel, which is like a whole library full of stories in one volume.
Or like a closet full of shoes. Go ahead, reader. See if they fit.