Batteries aren’t required. Plus, these items don’t need to be assembled. And there are never any missing parts. Let’s face it: books make the best holiday gifts. The trick? Picking the right ones for those children or teens on your list.
Luckily for you, the editors of School Library Journal—the world's largest reviewer of books for young readers—are here to help. They’ve come up with 21 titles (selected from among our 2008 Best Books) that are sure to make kids of all ages “ooh” and “ahh.”
So if you’re looking for that perfect picture book for a favorite preschooler or a work about exotic frogs for a budding young naturalist or a good dose of chick-lit or fantasy for a hard-to-please teen, rest easy—you’ve come to the right place.
Picture Book Charmers
From the cover image of a chubby-cheeked tot to pages bursting with sweet-faced babies of all backgrounds, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (Harcourt) will captivate wee ones. Mem Fox’s rhythmic rhymes and Helen Oxenbury’s endearing illustrations afford opportunities for cuddling and kissing, choral counting, and savoring the delights of a baby’s world (ages 1–3).
In Valeri Gorbachev’s Christopher Counting (Philomel), an exuberant bunny masters a new skill at school and quickly puts it into practice, totting up everything from the fish in his aquarium to bedtime yawns. Kids will relish the lively storytelling, sprightly artwork, and childlike celebration of accomplishment (ages 4–6).
Children adjusting to a new sibling will empathize with a disgruntled youngster who emphatically suggests several unpleasant fates for his unwanted addition—before discovering that being an older brother has its rewards. Balancing genuine emotions with exaggeratedly comical cartoons, Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s hilarious picture book, Mail Harry to the Moon! (Little, Brown), is keenly tuned to its audience’s sensibilities (ages 4–7).
Action figure fans will relish Mini Grey’s Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog (Knopf) as the toy-size hero searches for his beloved pet (oh no! the mud-covered Scrubbing Brush has been deep-sixed by a hygiene-obsessed adult) while steadfastly refusing to accept a flashy new robot as a replacement. Imaginative play meets edge-of-your seat adventure in a humorous tale illustrated with luscious artwork (ages 4–8).
More than Just the Facts
Young naturalists will adore Wild Tracks! A Guide to Nature’s Footprints (Sterling), Jim Arnosky’s enthusiastic how-to on finding, identifying, and interpreting the tracks of various North American animals. Critter portraits are paired with family facts, big-as-life footprint sketches, and cool fold-outs (ages 7–12).
Nic Bishop showcases the wonders of Frogs (Scholastic) with lively text and breathtaking photographs. Kids will be mesmerized by action images of these amazing amphibians as a frog turbo-jumps out of the water to grab a caterpillar with it sticky tongue, a horned frog digests its dinner (a mouse tail dangles from its mouth), and a tadpole is captured by a giant water bug (ages 7–10).
Readers who are passionate about all things prehistoric will discover some astonishing new creatures in Timothy J. Bradley’s imaginatively illustrated Paleo Bugs: Survival of the Creepiest (Chronicle), including a seven-foot-long millipede, a familiar-looking though ancient cockroach, and a long-ago beetle that cleaned up Jurassic dung (ages 8–12).
Gifts for Family Sharing
Kadir Nelson’s stunningly illustrated We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Hyperion) weaves together entertaining quotes and anecdotes, historical tidbits, and thought-provoking insights to provide a revealing look at America’s favorite pastime. The book’s conversational tone (it’s narrated from the players’ collective point of view) and magnificent larger-than-life portraits make it a wonderful choice for reading aloud (ages 8 up).
With attention focused on January’s presidential inauguration, it’s the perfect time to share Our White House: Looking in, Looking Out (Candlewick), a collection of poems, short stories, essays, presidential speeches and letters, and artwork—all centered around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its residents. With contributions from 108 well-known children’s book authors and illustrators, this is an extraordinary journey through American history (ages 8–14).
The creator of The New Way Things Work (Houghton, 1998) uses a similar approach to explore and elucidate a new subject: The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body (Houghton). From cells to the major body systems, David Macaulay demystifies complicated concepts with vivid text, crystal-clear illustrations, and engagingly lighthearted touches to create the ultimate owner’s manual (ages 12 up).
Fabulous Fiction for Middle Graders
In Clementine’s Letter (Hyperion), the irrepressible third grader generates one “astoundishing” idea after another as she tackles her problems with élan… but still ends up in trouble. Perfect for newly confident readers, Sara Pennypacker’s humorous text and Marla Frazee’s spry sketches will wow fans of Ramona and Judy Moody (ages 7–9).
Kids who like action-packed puzzlers such as Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer (Scholastic, 2004) or Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little, Brown, 2007) will tear through Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery (David Fickling). In this thriller, Ted relies on his unique way of thinking and the help of his older sister to find a cousin who has vanished into thin air (ages 10–13).
Fans of both horror tales and comics will be riveted by P. Craig Russell’s chilling graphic-novel retelling of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (HarperCollins). Crisp artwork and concise storytelling will keep readers mesmerized and petrified as Coraline discovers an alternate world on the other side of a bricked-up doorway that at first seems appealing… but soon turns terrifying (ages 10–13). The animated movie version of Gaiman’s tale will be released in February 2009.
Two packed-with-adventure novels feature strong female protagonists and highlight coming-of-age experiences. Set in 1939 England, Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool (Dutton) introduces Tally—a courageous and creative 11-year-old who helps the prince of nearby Bergania escape the Nazis—and his overbearing royal relations (ages 10–13). Similar to Gail Carson Levine’s novels (Ella Enchanted, HarperCollins, 1997), Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s latest book mixes realism, magic, and once-upon-a-time flair to tell an enthralling tale. Newly orphaned, Princess Ben (Houghton) is lonely and miserable as the unlikable Queen Sophia tries to whip her into throne-ready shape. However, when Ben discovers an enchanted room in the castle, she soon turns her life around, growing into an individual who can take on dragons, lead her country, and even fall in love (ages 11–16).
For Those Tough-To-Please Teens
Chick-lit aficionados will get a kick out of E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion). This true-confessions-style account tells how one girl transforms from a sweet-natured “Bunny Rabbit” to a cocky “near-criminal mastermind” who infiltrates a secret all-male society at her elite boarding school and orchestrates a series of awe-inspiring—and trouble-making—pranks (ages 12 up).
Teens who like their fantasy with a touch of martial arts excitement and X-Men-esque inner turmoil will enjoy Kristin Cashore’s debut novel. Katsa is a Graceling (Harcourt)—an individual born with an acutely developed ability—whose special skill happens to be lethal combat. With the encouragement of new friend/love interest Po, who is also gifted, the young woman rebels against her royal uncle (whose been using her as a heavy) and decides to use her expertise for the greater good. This epic-scale novel is laced with romance, adventure, self-discovery, and fight scenes (ages 14 up).
Fantasy-master Terry Pratchett’s latest book takes place in a parallel Pacific Ocean during pseudo-Victorian times and stars two unforgettable young characters. Mau (the sole survivor of the tsunami that decimated his village) and Daphne (an English castaway with the spunk and swashbuckling independence of Pirates of the Caribbean’sElizabeth Swann) find themselves rebuilding Mau’s island Nation (HarperCollins) as refugees (and enemies) arrive in droves. A thought-provoking and wryly entertaining alternate history adventure (ages 12 to 16).
Several set-in-a-possible-near-future thrillers will keep kids reading into the wee hours and enthusiastically passing books among friends. In Suzanne Collins’s riveting The Hunger Games (Scholastic), teenagers are selected by lottery to represent their districts in a fight-to-the death contest that is broadcast on live television. Reflecting broken-mirror images of today’s ubiquitous reality-TV series, this gripping survival story incorporates romance and adventure and explores issues of humanity (ages 12 up). Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Holt) is set in a time marked by mind-boggling—but illegal—biotechnological advances. Seventeen-year-old Jenna, who has just awoken from a yearlong coma after a devastating car accident, slowly regains her lost memories and soon realizes that her parents are keeping a startling secret… one that reaches to the core of who—and what—she is (ages 14 up). Armed with an amazing array of snoopware, Big Brother is watching Marcus, the tech-savvy star of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (TOR). When Marcus is mistakenly arrested and mistreated by the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on his hometown of San Francisco, it’s Marcus against the Man in a battle of wills, courage, and techno smarts. Flavored with humor and romance, this spine-tingling read will have teens thinking about personal freedom and the standing up for one’s beliefs (ages 15 up).The mother of three voracious young readers, Joy Fleishhacker is a children's librarian and freelance writer who has many of these titles on her own gift-giving list.