When I was in third grade, my parents gave me a bright red book that still sits on my bookshelf today: Great Stories for Young Readers. Here are some of our favorite new gift books geared toward all sorts of young readers. With luck, your present to a special someone will become a cherished favorite for decades to come.
CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
Young readers always get a kick out of animals—old and new—and the amusing things they do. Leave Animal Antics on a coffee table, and readers of all ages will dive in. The book combines superb photography with short write-ups about why each animal is behaving so comically. A baby orangutan gazes mischievously from underneath a “hat” of leaves; a koala snoozes while hanging slumped in a tree; and a bobcat sits atop a tall cactus in a prickly attempt to avoid the wrath of a cougar. The cover photo sets the tone as a chimp sticks out its tongue, and images inside explain that chimps’ facial expressions have different meanings from those of humans. The tidbits in Animal Antics are meant to educate and entertain.
If you know a young reader who can’t get enough of dinosaurs, The Great Big Dinosaur Treasury is the perfect choice. This is my favorite sort of storybook collection, containing eight stories from different authors and illustrators, giving kids a chance to sample a variety of tales and styles. It features favorites like Curious George’s Dinosaur Discovery and Bernard Most’s If the Dinosaurs Came Back—always popular in our house. Carol and Donald Carrick’s Patrick’s Dinosaurs is a timeless story about two brothers and the amazing power of imagination. Kids will relish Howard Fine’s dramatic illustrations for Deb Lund’s Dinosailors, about a “dinotough” group of sailing dinosaurs who encounter a nasty squall. A “Meet the Authors and Illustrators” section will no doubt lead readers to more books. And if all that good reading isn’t quite enough, the book contains an access code so fans can download free dinosaur-themed party accessories. ’Tis the season for celebrations, after all!
Well-done editions of fairy tales sometimes shine like newly discovered jewels, and several recent offerings do just that.
Chief among them is Little Red Riding Hood. The Brothers Grimm tale is retold in its original form, accompanied by remarkable laser die-cut illustrations by German-born artist Sybille Schenker. Her delicate, colorful pages have transparent layers that look like lace. Colors pop against dramatic black backgrounds as these truly exquisite cutouts transform scenes from the beloved tale into striking silhouettes. The wolf threatens to eat Little Red Cap; through a window we see Grandmother sleeping peacefully in her bed as the wolf approaches; then the wolf lies menacingly underneath Grandmother’s lavender flowered quilt. Everyone knows this fairy tale, but believe me, you’ve never seen it quite so strikingly illustrated.
Robert Sabuda is the king of pop-up, and The Dragon & the Knight: A Pop-up Misadventure is another of his marvels. This collection of nine two-page fairy tales includes favorites such as “The Three Pigs,” “Goldilocks” and “Rapunzel.” Of course, pop-ups are the star here; the short fairy tales simply set the stage for the 3-D action. In the very first story, a mischievous dragon declares that he can’t stop his fire-breathing ways, and from that point on, he and a kindly knight face off on each of the book’s spreads. Sabuda’s paper sculptures rise magically, bursting out of the book’s text-filled pages. As Hansel and Gretel stand in front of the witch and her house, the dragon wisecracks, “You don’t want to know what kind of a sweet tooth SHE has.” By the end, the dragon has begun to burn holes in the pages, throwing stories into increasing disarray. Happily, all concludes in a friendly way, and there’s a fun surprise regarding the knight’s identity.
Classic Bedtime Stories reminds me of the story-books I loved as a child. This large-format book contains 50 vibrant illustrations—influenced by masters like N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham—that took artist Scott Gustafson nearly two years to complete. Tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” jump to life in Gustafson’s detailed scenes. In “The Lion and the Mouse,” a trapped, scared lion’s head dominates the spread as he gazes apprehensively at a lively, furry mouse. In “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the furious giant glows in candlelight as he angrily tries to grab Jack. Particularly beautiful is “Little Sambha and the Tigers,” based on the enduring, though controversial, tale written by Scottish author Helen Bannerman in 1899 about her experiences living in India. Gustafson injects much-needed cultural context and humanity here, resulting in an updated tale worth telling.
Fans of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, take note. In Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, author Rick Riordan offers insight into the mythology behind his best-selling series. Written in the voice of Percy, Riordan’s half-god, half-mortal hero, this is a fun yet informative take on mythology, with selections such as “Hermes Goes to Juvie” and “Persephone Marries Her Stalker.” Percy explains in the introduction: “There’s like forty bajillion different versions of the myths, so don’t be all Well, I heard it a different way, so you’re WRONG! I’m going to tell you the versions that make the most sense to me.” This is a fun, breezy take on the gods that many will enjoy, whether or not they’re familiar with Percy Jackson. What’s more, Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator John Rocco adds his signature style to this collection with dramatic, engaging art.
BIG INTERACTIVE FUN
These jam-packed volumes offer a fresh spin on several favorite activities.
The Children’s Book of Magic presents a compelling look at the history of magic along with step-by-step instructions that teach young magicians 20 magic tricks. It’s easy to lose yourself in this book, which is teeming with tidbits, photos and illustrations. Did you know that sword swallowing is rarely faked? And have you heard of William Robinson, who pretended to be a Chinese magician named Chung Ling Soo? Students will love learning the tricks within these pages, such as the Rising Aces, Coin Through a Bottle and the Magic String. All require everyday household items such as rope, thread, a ping-pong ball, a deck of cards, a water bottle and so on—no giant saws needed! There’s also a timeline of magic history, a glossary and a list of skills that every magician needs.
Airplane books are another perennial favorite, and kids will flock to Nick Arnold’s Flying Machines. The book includes a brief explanation of how planes fly, along with a timeline of the history of flight, all accompanied by cheery illustrations by Brendan Kearney. The real fun starts with tear-out sheets that allow readers to build two paper planes. There’s also a box containing the materials to build three balsa wood and propeller aircraft, along with suggestions for flight experiments and a log to record notes about various flights. The models are colorful and easy to build, with names like Whirlybird Helicopter, Galactic Glider and Twin-Prop Superstar. There’s a reason why airplane books are so popular: Appealing to both boys and girls, they’re educational and offer hours of fun.
Artsy kids will be inspired by You Call That Art?!: Learn About Modern Sculpture and Make Your Own. The book’s engineers are pop-up creators James Diaz and David A. Carter, the latter known for The 12 Bugs of Christmas and other pop-up bug titles. This collaboration takes a serious look at the history of modern sculpture and includes brief profiles of 10 influential sculptors such as Rodin, Picasso, Duchamp and Calder. Students can dig deeper with the help of a bibliography and a list of websites in the end pages. The entertainment factor is a large envelope containing more than 100 colorful punch-out pieces that can be used to create six different sculptures modeled after those of the masters. These cardboard pieces are easy to maneuver, are numbered and come with instructional diagrams. Of course, kids are encouraged to forget the numbers and make their own creations.