This is one of my favourite times of year: I love buying books, in case you couldn’t tell, and I particularly enjoy giving people books which seem like the perfect match for them. Like Penelope Lumley in The Mysterious Howling, I believe that there’s always a book for every person and every occasion; you just have to find the right one. Thus, when the holidays roll around, I get the particular pleasure of going into a book shop and buying ALL THE BOOKS for my friends and relatives.
But what do I buy? In particular, what do I buy for children? This year I’m going to tell you about some of the best books I’ve been getting for the kids on my Chanukkah or Christmas lists. Some of these will be books you’ve seen on here before, some will be new, but all come highly, highly recommended. By me, that is. If, you know, you care about my opinion, which is what you find at this here blog. Also, a warning: This list is long. I’ll try to go from youngest to oldest, though, and mark age groups so that you don’t have to read all the way through if you don’t want to.
One little note: I’m going to be linking to Amazon here, at least sometimes, for your convenience (they have a lot of info) and mine (one easy place to search). Please, please, please consider buying from your local bookstore, however: they are irreplaceable, and the joy and security of flipping through a book before buying it cannot be overestimated. OK, that’s my little pitch.
For the babies of my acquaintance (and right now there are so many babies!!!), I continue to give them my very favourite early books: the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach Pear Plum and Peek-a-Boo. You’ve all seen Each Peach Pear Plum a long time ago, so I won’t go into it much here, but I will say that both of these books are entertaining to parent and child. There is so much to see and unpack in the illustrations, the rhymes and rhythms are so perfectly balanced, and the stories and characters are developed to such an incredible extent that even the most cynical parent and most distracted child will be engaged.
For one notch older, maybe early toddlerhood, I’ll link you to Here Babies, There Babies. I give this book out a lot, both to babies/toddlers and to little ones anticipating a new arrival in the family. I think it’s great for teaching kids about their place in a world full of other kids just like them, and the diversity of the text is subtly matched by the diversity in the illustrations, which I also love.
For, say, three- or four-year-olds this year I want to recommend one that I recently reviewed here: Night Train, Night Train and a beautiful new alphabet book which I have yet to review, Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sharon King-Chai.
Night Train, Night Train is stunningly beautiful (parents will admire the art as much as the children will) but is also a great train book, and have you ever noticed how fascinated three- or four-year-olds are by vehicles of all kinds? I’m so excited to hear how the kids of my acquaintance respond to this beautiful book.
Animalphabet is another visually stunning book. It’s a lift-the-flap book taken to the next level, with exquisite die-cut flaps with little peek-a-boo holes and visual jokes as you go from ant to zebra! I have absolutely no reason to own a copy of this book. None. And I’m determined that the copies I’ve purchased are all going to children of the right age to enjoy them and learn from them. And yet I know it’s going to be a wrench, I love the art so much.
For story picture books for kids one notch up from preschool, I’m going to present a few options for you to consider as you think about the kid in question’s tastes.
For the serious-minded or artistic child in your acquaintance, think about The Dam or Town Is by the Sea, which I tend to think of in the same breath, honestly. Both are exquisite, both deal obliquely with deep social or ecological issues– which never really disrupt the text or illustration, and yet somehow inform the atmosphere in a gentle, mournful sort of way. The Changeling loves both of these books, even though she’s far too young to understand the real implications of the story. Both are so beautiful in the pairing between text and art that I get a little choked up reading them.
Shelter is another book we’ve talked about fairly often, and, in fact, I love it so much that we even did a giveaway over here– and I still love it just as deeply. It’s beautiful, meaningful, gently opens the door to all kinds of great conversations about generosity and kindness… but it’s never, ever preachy. I think it’s a perfect book for the holidays: times of giving and deep reflection. And did I mention that it’s beautiful?
Captain’s Log: Snowbound by Erin Dionne, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbler is a great choice for a kid with a taste for adventure and a great sense of humour! Besides, if you live in a snowy region, as I do, you just know that you’re going to need a good, funny story to read on a snowy day– and who better to think about as a blizzard whirls by your window than Ernest Shackleton Jr.?
Lights! Camera! Alice! is another recent masterpiece. Written by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo, it is a good book for anyone with an interest in film, the role of women in the arts, or just a good story with wonderful characters. And the amazing thing is that it’s all true! Full to the brim with interesting facts, high drama, and adventure, this is one of the most gripping picture books I’ve read in 2018.
Next, I want to talk about the three best early reader series I’ve encountered since my daughter started to read.
First up are Catwings by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by S. D. Schindler and The Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. I’ve written about both before, right here, so I’ll be brief.
Catwings is a beautiful series, poignant to the core; you follow the winged cats as they look for people they can trust and homes they can call their own. The Cobble Street Cousins, by contrast, are homey and domestic to the core; the cousins already have family and home and love in spades, but the series revels in that domesticity. What both series have in common is an eye for detail and perfect pacing for little readers. These are probably my five-year-old’s favourite books to read solo, and yet if she asks me to read them with her, I find them as delightful and thoughtful as she does.
The next series I want to tell you about is new to the blog, but the author is not. Do you remember the Casson family books I wrote about here? Well, Hilary McKay has books for younger readers, too, so please consider welcoming Lulu into your life! Lulu is spunky, warm, and quick. Most of all, though, she’s an animal-lover, and if you have any animal-lovers in your life, they will relate to Lulu. Lulu rescues a duck egg, Lulu saves a dog, Lulu finds a good home for a cat and her two kittens– what doesn’t Lulu do for an animal? And all the way along, she finds herself in comical yet completely logical adventures. (I admit, the Changeling hasn’t read all of these yet… but I have…)
As for middle grade novels, here are three series and one stand-alone novel covering a variety of genres, but all with great heart, adventure, and brilliant characters.
I have to begin with the Fairyland series from Catherynne M. Valente. (You’re not surprised? That only proves that you know me by now.) September is one of the most powerful heroines I’ve encountered in MG fiction, the narrator is tricksy and vivid, and the range of side characters is second to none. They’ve peeled open my heart, made me laugh, made me cry– and always made me think. I need more people to read these so that I can have more people to talk to about them.
The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford is a book I want to make more of a fuss about than I have to date. I stumbled across it (erm, hunting a book down is the same as stumbling across it… right?) on John Scalzi’s blog and was instantly hooked. As soon as I got my hands on it, I opened it and fell in love. Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series will delight in the historical aspect of this novel, readers of fantasy and/or detective novels with love the dramatic tension of the plot, and readers in general will love the relationships between the characters and clear, beautiful writing.
Finally, here are two series I always think of in the same breath:
Two family-based MG series: Hilary McKay’s Casson family novels, and Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick family novels. The key to both series is that neither takes itself too seriously, but they both take their characters very seriously. That is to say, the characters’ lives, their concerns, their loves and heartbreaks– all of these are handled with gentleness and generosity, but the narrators never lose their senses of humour. From Rose Casson learning to love reading to Batty Penderwick recovering from her deep grief, neither series makes light of its characters’ challenges, but both let you know that it will be all right.
So! That’s as short a list as I could manage to help you with your holiday shopping! Did I miss anything fabulous? Let us know in the comments!