Books for Kids: A Scouting Report

There is a maddening game one finds played out in bookstores every holiday season. It is called “stump the book giver.” The giving of a book is one of the most intimate of offerings. The best of these unassuming, neatly wrapped rectangles displays evidence of the giver having some knowledge of the recipient. Of course, finding books for an adult of consistent preferences is not rocket science. My stepmother, for example, loves to get lost in a mystery — specifically, a historical mystery, not a police procedural.

But it’s considerably more challenging to select a book for a child, particularly if one only sees the boy or girl few times a year. It is insulting to the core to present a book to a ten-year-old that is developmentally appropriate for an eight-year-old. The rewards for getting it right, however, are rich: are you the aunt who had the foresight to give a young reader a copy of The Lightning Thief, when it was brand new, before all the other kids saw it? OMG! You rock!

Out of the thousands of children’s books published each year, how do we wade through them to put the right book in the right kid’s hands? Happily, if the gift giver conducts a small amount of reconnaissance, recommended reading appears almost effortlessly. A little scouting of my own this year has yielded the following, sorted by the intended recipient’s age:

For twos, threes, and fours: When there’s a niece or nephew in the picture who loves trucks, a good match is Trucks Roll by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Craig Frazier. Huge, graphically rendered trucks explode off the page, accompanied by a delightful rhyming, repetitive text. Children who can’t get enough of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus will fall in love with the equally absurd and amusing What Will Fat Cat Sit On? And speaking of Pigeon author Mo Willems, parents who are on their thousandth reading of his Knuffle Bunny will be pleased and relieved when their child receives the sequel, Knuffle Bunny, Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity. Trixie is now in preschool, where she finds out that her one-of-a-kind stuffed rabbit is not unique. The horror.

For the family with young children that you don’t know at all, a can’t-miss gift is Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day, packaged in a new hardcover edition with Whistle for Willie and a DVD of both stories. And Oliver Who Would Not Sleep is our pick for the bedtime book of the year, with a rhythmic cadence to the text and imaginative art that echoes familiar favorites.

For kids in early elementary, first and second grade: The five-year-old dinosaur fanatic will love Unerversaurus. (You never saw us! Get it?) Aiden Potts gives an enlightening and witty account of how paleontologists infer what dinosaurs looked liked from animals that live today. Is there a Dr. Seuss enthusiast in the family? Don’t miss the rollicking read-aloud Theolonius Monster’s Sky High Fly Pie by Judy Sierra. New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren’s squiggly black-and-white drawings with touches of lime green create a perfectly cuddly monster who has developed a taste for flies.

An under-the-radar easy-to-read is Dog and Bear by Laura Vacarro Seeger. In three short chapters illustrated with soft, simple, sweet paintings, we get to know and love these dear friends, a patchwork teddy bear and a copper-colored Dachshund.

Do you know a seven- or eight-year-old child who has raced through all of Judy Blume’s Fudge books and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona? Clementine and The Talented Clementine are just right for them. Sara Pennypacker’s protagonist (“stuck with a name that is also a fruit “) rightfully joins the pantheon of exuberant children’s book characters with a unique and delightful point of view. These books are perfect for family read-alouds, as well as serving as transitional chapter books for children making the move up from easy readers.

My favorite fact book for this age group this year is Spiders by Nic Bishop. Bishop, an award-winning photographer, presents spiders up-close and personal. His enthusiasm for these arachnids is contagious. The wolf spider carries her impressive brood of babies on her back — and the four-page gatefold spread of the jumping spider is astonishing.

Let’s not forget the kids who aren’t big readers. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a book for them — just a different kind of book. One fact-filled compendium that I’ve found delightful is The Encyclopedia of Immaturity by the editors of Klutz. From the purely silly to the extremely gross to practical tips on how to read a grown-up’s mind, this photo-illustrated volume will occupy a group of kids for more than a few hours. For the ones who are artistically inclined, try Squiggles: A Really Giant Drawing and Painting Book by Taro Gomi, author of the bestseller Everyone Poops.

What was the last book the child loved? For middle-schoolers (11 and up) who love a fantasy novel with a great sense of humor, look no further than The True Meaning of Smekday. Here, the alien race called the Boov have taken over the earth. Tip, an 11-year-old girl, and a renegade extraterrestrial boy named J.Lo join forces to save the human race.

For a seventh- or eighth-grade girl you don’t know very well (but whose parents have assured you that she has been caught up in the Gossip Girls series), look for the box set of the Uglies. In Westerfeld’s dystopic future, when adolescents turn 16 they undergo plastic surgery to turn perfect or pretty. What if she’s already read those? Just published in hardcover is a companion volume, The Extras, set in a society where popularity is the principal currency.

Kids who read all three of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson tales (which feature modern-day kids who are half-breeds, part human and part Greek god) and are waiting impatiently for the new one might enjoy Katherine Marsh’s Night Tourist. This is a modern quest tale with echoes of Greek mythology, set in and around New York City.

A middle-schooler who enjoys contemporary fiction like Because of Winn Dixie will be delighted to discover two new voices. In Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Zoe imagines herself a famous concert pianist, only to be confronted with a very different reality. Pat Murphy in Wild Girls captures the thoughts and feelings of 12-year-old girls in the 1970s, a time of change.

For 13 and older, my pick for best fiction of the year is The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. A young adult devoted to Orson Scott Card for his complicated societies set in the future will be thrilled to discover this complex quest tale that begins in the Sahara Desert of 2070.

Finally, if I could only recommend one book this year for young adults, it would be Unwind by Neal Schusterman. Rarely has there been a novel so deliciously evil in its premise. Parents and guardians who are tired of oppositional, impulsive teenage behavior, of teens that have not met expectations, of teens who are simply unwanted, have the option of getting rid of them by turning them over to be “unwound” and harvested for their parts. Can 16-year-old Connor escape this horrible fate?

So what have we learned? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Have you ever been at a family gathering, stared down a kid, and blurted out, “So how’s school?” Kids scoff silently at that lame adult. Try starting a real conversation, perhaps one about books. Let me get you started: try asking, “Is there one kids’ book that I have to read this year? What would you recommend?”