Editors’ Picks: Best gifts for 2021

If you’ve been feeling down, take heart. Environmental icon Jane Goodall remains hopeful, so surely we readers can, too. Her wisdom, along with four additional books, fills this season with inspiration and empowerment.

★ The Book of Hope

Jane Goodall may well be Earth’s ultimate cheerleader. In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, she professes steadfast hope for both humanity and our planet that’s rooted in “action and engagement,” not simply wishful thinking. In straightforward, easy-to-digest prose, she writes that each one of us can make a difference, and that “the cumulative effect of thousands of ethical actions can help to save and improve our world for future generations.” 

The book is framed as a series of conversations between Goodall and Douglas Abrams, a truly engaging thinker and writer who took a similar approach in the first title in the Global Icons series, The Book of Joy, in which he facilitated conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Readers will be drawn into The Book of Hope as Abrams arrives at Goodall’s home in Tanzania for dinner, bearing a bottle of whiskey. Their subsequent chats span the globe; they talk at the Jane Goodall Institute in the Netherlands, and eventually, because of COVID-19 restrictions, they connect via Zoom as Goodall gives Abrams a virtual tour of her childhood home in Bournemouth, England. 

Their discussions are focused yet wide-ranging as Goodall explains the four main sources of her hope: “the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of youth, and the indomitable human spirit.” She admits that she briefly lost her way after her husband Derek Bryceson died in 1980, saying, “Grief can make one feel hopeless.” Abrams and Goodall’s talks deepen after he unexpectedly loses his father to lymphoma and, later, his college roommate to suicide. “We are going through dark times,” Goodall says early in the book. For this reason and many more, The Book of Hope is a gem of a gift.

The Lightmaker’s Manifesto

If you’re yearning to become a true change-maker, then turn to Karen Walrond’s extremely helpful The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy for a profound nudge. Walrond definitely walks the walk, having ditched her career as a lawyer to become an activism coach. As an Afro-Caribbean American immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, she says, “my work is underpinned by an ongoing desire to fight discrimination and foster interconnectedness through the sharing of stories and images of beauty.”

After a colleague tried to pressure Walrond to break the law, she found herself at a crisis point in her career and spent months trying to figure out what to do next. She proceeded in a structured, analytical way—a process that she shares in narrative form, as well as in a “Lightmaker’s Manual” section of prompts and exercises to help readers make their own decisions. She confesses early on, “In my not-so-distant past, I had come up with a pretty extensive list of reasons why an activist life wasn’t for me.” But when she realized that she loved to speak, write and take photos, she searched for a way to put all these talents to work.

She bookends her account by discussing the beginning and end of a trip to Kenya sponsored by the ONE Campaign to fight poverty and preventable disease, describing the joyful rewards of her new career. “We can do this, my friends,” she says in her encouraging and authentic way. “There’s no end to the light that we can make.”

★ The Matter of Black Lives

The Matter of Black Lives: Writing From The New Yorker, co-edited by New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Jelani Cobb, is a standout among recent books about race, notable for its historical perspective and breadth as well as for the excellent writing of its many renowned contributors. The first entry, for example, James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” marked a turning point for The New Yorker’s coverage of racial matters. It is a riveting, astounding essay, describing in a highly personal way Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. In a foreword, Cobb notes, “Baldwin’s essay was, for many readers, a jolt, a concussive experience. . . . As an indictment of American bigotry and hypocrisy, tackling themes of violence, sex, history, and religion, the piece continues to resonate more than a half century later.” 

The same can be said of so many of these essays. Journalist Calvin Trillin shares a fascinating 1964 account of a white man questioning Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christianity during a flight between Atlanta, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi. Some essays are simply pure pleasure, such as Andrea Lee’s 1983 piece “Quilts,” about her trip to see family in Ahoskie, North Carolina, and her desire to buy a handmade quilt. 

The Matter of Black Lives is a treasure chest of essays guaranteed to provoke, dismay, delight and inspire. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now

Sometimes it can be equally enlightening to read the words of the not-so-famous, like congressional staffer Jasmine J. Wyatt, who had a stark realization after an oral surgeon informed her that she had fractured her jaw after years of grinding her teeth. Wyatt mused that she had “morphed into a Black wallflower, gritting my teeth to keep from saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time. A silencing of myself over and over, until I thought I had nothing valuable left to say.” Thankfully, those days of silencing have lost their power over Wyatt and many others, as evidenced by Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope, which is filled with short but commanding essays written by a variety of Black women sharing their personal experiences. 

These essays—and a few poems—are grouped into categories such as “Family & Food for the Soul” and “Identity and Roots,” and each piece begins with a quotation from a well-known figure, including Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland and Audre Lorde. Some offerings are nuggets of love, such as journalist Rebekah Sager’s tribute to her father, who raised her single-handedly, his actions lighting the way for Sager to raise her son “with dignity, vision, empathy and grace.” Other pieces feature insightful yet amusing journeys of self-discovery, like Rachel Decoste’s account of moving to Dakar, Senegal, and on her first day there, suddenly belting out a song from The Lion King. “I was mad at myself for starting my journey to the Motherland with a Disney soundtrack. . . . How colonized was my mind that this was the first tune that came to my spirit?” 

The many voices featured in I’m Speaking Now rise up like a powerful choir, offering melodies that will stay with you. 

Shedding the Shackles

British textile artist Lynne Stein admits that when she plans vacations, instead of craving beaches or cuisine, she seeks out local craft traditions, hoping to get a firsthand look at Yoruba tribal beadwork or Middle Eastern metalwork. She eventually decided to investigate the narratives surrounding the craftwork of female artists in Indigenous and marginalized communities, and the result is Shedding the Shackles: Women’s Empowerment Through Craft, an around-the-world-tour that showcases a variety of talent, traditions and history and provides an enlightening look at the transformative powers of female creativity.

The book begins with short entries focusing on individual artists and specific craft techniques, such as the increasingly popular Boro and Sashiko forms of Japanese stitching. There’s a profile of English artist Lauren O’Farrell, who coined the term “yarnstorming,” a type of knitted street art that has become wonderfully widespread. Readers also learn about arpilleristas, Chilean women who create three-dimensional appliqued textiles to document their lives as well as to shed light on human rights abuses and violence, especially during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Vibrant photographs accompany each entry, focusing on both the artists and their exquisite craftsmanship. 

Stein includes longer discussions of female enterprises that are not only art but also a means of survival, such as Monkeybiz South Africa, founded in 2000 to empower underprivileged women as bead artists. Their funky 3D creations quickly became a worldwide hit and have been included in numerous international exhibitions. 

After perusing these pages, readers may adjust their own vacation plans to allow time for learning about and appreciating local art traditions.

Four books guide readers in building a better world, with wisdom from Jane Goodall, activist Karen Walrond and many more.

New Native Kitchen

Perfect gift for: Your foodie spouse who loves gardening and open-fire grilling

In New Native Kitchen, Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, previously of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, celebrates the cuisines of Indigenous cultures while respecting and revering “hyperlocal” regional distinctions in these foodways and traditions. Bitsoie, who came to cooking via cultural anthropology and art history, aims to tell “edible stories that allow people to appreciate the living artifact of food.” Here, with the help of James Beard Award-winning author James O. Fraioli, Bitsoie introduces readers to key elements of the Native pantry, such as nopales (cactus paddles), Navajo steam corn, sumac powder and tepary beans, many of which can be ordered online or found at specialty spice shops. From a sumac Navajo leg of lamb with onion sauce, to a Makah crab boil, to Choctaw bison chili, Bitsoie covers the vast North American continent and its islands in this important book.

Wild Sweetness

Perfect gift for: Your boho friend with a shortbread obsession

With full-page photographs of winter branches, gently wilting roses and foggy ponds, Thalia Ho’s Wild Sweetness is as much a moody evocation of nature’s evanescence as it is a sumptuous celebration of dessert. Grouped by season, the recipes range from comfy American standards like cinnamon buns and gingersnaps to frangipane tart and a fig clove fregolotta. All possess a delicate quality and some flower, spice or other ingredient redolent of the natural world. Cream seems a visual motif, showing up, for example, in a juniper ice cream, a frosted chamomile tea cake, a lemon curd streusel cake and amaretti. But deep, dark chocolate is at play too—in ganache thumbprints, drunken fig brownies and a beetroot mud cake, among others sheer delights.

À Table

Perfect gift for: The hip newlyweds next door with the adorable dog

Is anything sexier than a good French cookbook? Rebekah Peppler’s À Table reveals and revels in the charms of long, casual French dinners with friends, and Peppler leads with blithe wit as she shares a modern take on entertaining. (She won me over instantly with the words “Hemingway was a supreme ass” in a recipe for Chambéry cassis, an aperitif.) Women are at the center of Peppler’s vision, one in which we dispense with yesteryear’s formalities in favor of long, carefree nights of smart conversation, mismatched plates and zero pretension. Ouais, cherie. On to olives with saucisson and roast chicken with prunes! On to daube de boeuf and (vegan!) French onion soup with cognac! You’ll love the mellow-but-decadent vibe, even if you feel un petit peu jalouse of Peppler’s Parisian coterie.

Black Food

Perfect gift for: Cultural mavens, globetrotters and aesthetes

Chef and Vegetable Kingdom author Bryant Terry assembles a large all-star team for his glorious new Black Food, “a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora.” I love this trend of cookbooks that are so openly ambitious, with essays and poetry, visual art and historical context, all of it standing strong alongside the food. Structured by themes such as motherland; Black women, food and power; and Black, queer, food—each with a corresponding playlist—this vibrant, immersive book pulls from many foodways and regions of the globe, with Black chefs, intellectuals and tastemakers leading the way. We encounter dishes as diverse as Somali lamb stew, Bajan fish cakes, Ghanaian crepe cake, vegan black-eyed pea beignets and, at last, for the perfect finish, Edna Lewis’ fresh peach cobbler. Terry also shares a recipe for Pili Pili oil, which adds an herbaceous, spicy kick to anything you drizzle it over.

Tables & Spreads

Perfect gift for: Your sister-in-law who loves to host and is always leveling up

I am not a big entertainer, but I love a good snack-meal. And there’s something delightful about artfully arranging a table full of nibbles for guests: curious cheeses, spiced nuts, tangy jams, decadent dips and a handful of rosemary sprigs plucked from the garden. Whether this sounds fun, anxiety-producing or a bit of both, Tables & Spreads is here to help you party. Shelly Westerhausen, master of Instagram-worthy tablescapes, shares themes for every occasion, from dips for dinner, to a savory focaccia party, to a Christmas morning Dutch baby party. Special attention is given to what Westerhausen dubs the “wow factor”: decorative and mood-setting details such as color themes, decanters and candles of varying heights, along with floral arrangements. Informational charts abound with practical assists; my favorite may be “Portioning a Spread,” right down to tablespoons of dip or pieces of crudites, so you don’t over- or under-buy.

This holiday season, whether you’re hosting or showing up with a single covered dish, let one of these outstanding cookbooks be your guide.

Thumbing through a beautifully designed coffee-table book is a sure way to provoke a love of photography. Just in time for the holidays, here are three gorgeous photo books that are sure to please the art or nature lover on your list—and perhaps you can keep one for yourself, too.

Shop Cats of China

Cats have charmed and fascinated humans for millennia. From ancient Egypt to modern times, cats have been depicted in art, mummified in tombs and even immortalized by the popular social media account @bodegacatsofinstagram. In Shop Cats of China, Marcel Heijnen takes readers on a photographic tour of China’s many retail shops, the people who run them—and the furry loiterers who clearly know they’re the stars of the show.

Equal parts street photography, cat portraiture and whimsical poetry, Shop Cats of China is much more than cute pictures of cats. The street scenes in this book, sometimes languid and colorful, sometimes kinetic and full of city life, are lovingly punctuated with haiku and cat stories (written by Ian Row) that add a layer of sweetness and humor to each image. A man pours tea into cups while a relaxed white cat looks directly at the camera and wonders if he’s invited. Red seafood bins surround an orange cat who, ironically, doesn’t like seafood. A spotted cat sits atop a bicycle and waits for a friend. These scenes and others will delight and entertain anyone who is fascinated by the relationship between humans and their cats, while the surrounding textures and colors offer a slice of Chinese shop culture and street life.

Birds

Tim Flach is a world-class nature photographer with the heart of a painter. His new book, Birds, offers a unique and up-close view of his avant-garde wildlife photography. The glossy pages full of shockingly sharp images show many elegant and rare birds, from songbirds and parrots at rest, to raptors and birds of paradise in flight. Feathers look like landscapes, beaks glisten like gold and onyx, and the birds’ elegant postures make them all look like royalty. The bright colors are so beautiful that they seem almost unnatural, while the details look real enough that you could reach out and touch them. Full of personality and exquisite artistry, Birds will mesmerize nature lovers with its compassion and profound beauty.

Night on Earth

Though it’s normally hidden under the cover of darkness, the world can look magical at night, as photographer Art Wolfe reveals in his remarkable new book. One of the first images in Night on Earth is a stunning, almost overwhelming photograph of Mount Etna in Sicily, erupting purple ash. A perfectly round moon peeks out from behind the plumes of dangerous-looking dark smoke as pink, red and blue clouds dance around in the background of the night sky. It’s a compelling shot to start this dazzling collection, which is filled with impressive images.

To capture these cinematic nightscapes, Wolfe traveled to all seven continents and photographed starry skies, animals, humans, natural scenery and cities. The result is an assemblage of unusual sights that occur while most people are asleep—including black rhinoceroses rambling through Etosha National Park in Namibia, fishermen on stilts in Myanmar, late-night commuters in Tokyo, penguins ambling on the shores of an island in the Atlantic Ocean and an offering floating on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Organized into helpful chapters, such as “Stars and Shadows” and “The Creatures of the Night,” these 250 pages of vibrant color photographs will wow anyone who’s curious about the mysteries that unfold from dusk until dawn.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Thumbing through these beautifully designed coffee-table books is a sure way to inspire a love of photography.

For the bibliophile on your shopping list, we’ve rounded up the year’s best books about books.

The Madman’s Library

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a must-have for any bibliomaniac. Over the course of this splendidly illustrated volume, Brooke-Hitching reviews the history of the book, investigating a variety of forms and a wide range of media but always emphasizing the extraordinary. 

Along with a number of wonderful one-offs (a book composed of Kraft American cheese slices), there are giant books (the 6-foot-tall Klencke Atlas) and tiny books (a biography of Thomas Jefferson that literally fits inside a nutshell), books that are sinister (a volume with a cabinet of poisons concealed inside) and books that are sublime (the medieval Stowe Missal with its ornate reliquary case). Astonishing from start to finish, The Madman’s Library stands as a testament to the abiding power and adaptability of the book.

Unearthing the Secret Garden

Marta McDowell looks at the life of a treasured author in Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. Born in 1849, British novelist Burnett published more than 50 novels, including The Secret Garden. McDowell delivers an intriguing account of Burnett’s botanical and literary pursuits and the ways in which they were intertwined. She highlights Burnett’s enduring love of plants, tours the gardens the author maintained in Europe and America and even dedicates an entire chapter to the plants that appear in The Secret Garden.

McDowell, who teaches horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has also written about how plants influenced the work of Emily Dickinson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beatrix Potter. Filled with marvelous illustrations and historical photographs, her new book is a stirring exploration of the natural world and its impact on a literary favorite.

The Annotated Arabian Nights

The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights, edited by scholar and author Paulo Lemos Horta, provides new perspectives on a beloved classic. Rooted in the ancient literary traditions of Persia and India, the collection of folktales known as The Arabian Nights features familiar figures such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and Shahrazad, the female narrator who spins the stories.

This new volume offers a fresh translation of the stories by Yasmine Seale, along with stunning illustrations and informative notes and analysis. The tales, Horta says, deliver “the most pleasurable sensation a reader can encounter—that feeling of being nestled in the lap of a story, fully removed from the surrounding world and concerned only with a need to know what happens next.” This lavish edition of an essential title is perfect for devotees of the tales and an ideal introduction for first-time readers.

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork From Grown-Up Readers is a delightful tribute to author Ann M. Martin and the much-loved Baby-Sitters Club series she introduced in 1986. Propelled by memorable characters, primarily tween club members Kristy, Stacey, Claudia and Mary Anne, who run a babysitting service, the series tackles delicate family matters like adoption and divorce, as well as broader topics such as race, class and gender.

In We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, Kelly Blewett, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba and other notable contributors take stock of the popular books and their lasting appeal. With essays focusing on friendship, culture, identity and—yes—the babysitting business, this anthology showcases the multifaceted impact of the series. Nifty illustrations and comic strips lend extra charm to the proceedings. Edited by authors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, the volume is a first-rate celebration of the BSC.

Bibliophile

It’s almost impossible to peruse Jane Mount’s colorful sketches of book jackets and book stacks without being possessed by the impulse to dive into a new novel or compile a reading list. For her new book, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Mount teamed up with author Jamise Harper to create a thoughtful guide to the work of marginalized writers that can help readers bring diversity to their personal libraries.

With picks for lovers of historical fiction, short stories, poetry, mystery and more, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines brims with inspired reading recommendations. The book also spotlights literary icons (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison) and treasured illustrators (Bryan Collier, Luisa Uribe, Kadir Nelson). Standout bookstores from across the country and people who are making a difference in the publishing industry are also recognized. With Mount’s fabulous illustrations adding dazzle to every chapter, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines will gladden the heart of any book lover.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The universe of words is steadily expanding thanks to author John Koenig. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig catalogs newly minted terms for hard-to-articulate emotional states: conditions of the heart or mind that seem to defy definition. Ledsome, for instance, is his term for feeling lonely in a crowd, while povism means the frustration of being stuck inside your own head.

Drawing upon verbal scraps from the past and oddments from different languages, Koenig created all of the words in this dictionary. He started this etymological project in 2009 as a website and has since given TED talks and launched a YouTube channel based on his work. “It’s a calming thing, to learn there’s a word for something you’ve felt all your life but didn’t know was shared by anyone else,” he writes in Obscure Sorrows. Koenig’s remarkable volume is the perfect purchase for the logophile in your life.

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Stumped on what to buy for the reader who’s read everything? We’ve got six picks for the book-obsessed.

Each of these picture books explores the most complex emotion of all: love. They’re the perfect gift for a young child or a new or expecting parent, exquisite keepsakes for families to cherish and pass on as the years go by.

★ What Is Love?

Author Mac Barnett spins a remarkable story from a simple question in What Is Love?. When a boy asks his grandmother what love is, she suggests that he venture into the world to find an answer for himself, so the lad leaves home on an unusual quest. Along the way, he encounters a wide range of characters, each of whom offers a different perspective on the meaning of the emotion. 

For the carpenter, love is a house that “wobbles and creaks.” The structure may be unsteady, the carpenter says, “But in the end, the thing stands.” For the actor, love is applause from an adoring audience. “At that moment,” the actor tells the boy, “you know: You exist. You are seen.” Yet these and other responses fail to satisfy the boy. Not until he returns home, having reached adulthood, is he able to identify for himself the meaning of love.

Barnett’s story is profound and accessible, a tale infused with a sense of adventure and a timeless quality. Carson Ellis’ illustrations add color and energy to the proceedings. Thanks to her fanciful, detailed depictions, each character the boy encounters has a distinct personality. This journey will inspire readers to consider the book’s central question and come up with answers of their own.

Bigger Than a Bumblebee

In Joseph Kuefler’s delightful Bigger Than a Bumblebee, a mother introduces her child to the wonders of the world, but none of them compare to the miracle of the love they share. In beautifully poetic text, the mother explains to her “darling” that they are both smaller and larger than their animal friends—smaller than the brown bear and the giraffe, but bigger than the mouse and the porcupine. In the end, though, what matters most is love, an emotion that cannot be measured: “Love is me and you,” she says. “Our love is small, but it is big, too.”

Kuefler’s splendid illustrations portray an array of natural phenomena, from faraway stars in the night sky, to a stream teeming with toads and fireflies, to a patch of desert populated by birds and a solitary long-eared jack rabbit. Young readers will be captivated by the dynamic spreads and the creatures, great and small, that Kuefler includes. A moving celebration of the majesty of nature and the bond between parent and child, Bigger Than a Bumblebee powerfully delivers a heartfelt message: Love is limitless and unquantifiable, a force that knows no boundaries. 

★ My Love for You Is Always

In the warm, wonderful My Love for You Is Always, a young boy quizzes his mother about the nature of love. “Does it have a taste or a smell?” he wonders as he helps her in the kitchen. As she puts together a traditional Chinese feast for their family, his mother takes inspiration from the dishes they’re cooking to answer his questions. Author Gillian Sze’s text is full of sensory imagery. Love, the boy’s mother tells him, “tastes sweeter than the red dates I put in your soup. My love is that savored first bite of spun sugar.” When the boy asks, “Does it make a sound?” his mother replies, “Sometimes it’s crisp like winter radish. Other times it’s quiet like simmering broth.”

Michelle Lee’s colored pencil and gouache illustrations are sweet and soft. Through images of swirling fish, delicate cranes and a fabulous crimson dragon, she brings a touch of magic to Sze’s tale. The ritual of the family meal—sharing food that’s been prepared with care and intention—adds a unique layer to the story and underscores the sense of abundance and comfort that love can provide. My Love for You Is Always closes on a cozy note and an image of mother, son and other relatives gathered together for dinner. From start to finish, it’s a charming and delicious tale.

l’ll Meet You in Your Dreams 

Jessica Young and Rafael López pay tribute to the connections between parents and children in their lovely, lyrical book, l’ll Meet You in Your Dreams. It’s narrated by a parent who offers an inspiring message about the power of familial love to encourage youngsters to make discoveries about the world, pursue their passions and achieve independence.

Young’s rhyming text contains refreshing imagery and makes allusions to the natural world—a mouse and a mole snuggling in an underground den, and a hawk and an eagle soaring over the earth—to highlight the many facets of love, showing how it can nurture, protect and inspire. Her brief, uplifting stanzas add to the story’s appeal. “As you grow, I’ll be with you, / for every step, your whole life through,” the narrator says. “And where the future gleams . . . / I’ll meet you in your dreams.” 

López’s out-of-this-world illustrations reflect the buoyant spirit of Young’s text. They follow two different parents and their children in whimsical scenes that capture the marvels of wildlife and  the passage of time. A joyful examination of parental love and its ability to provide a solid foundation for children—a starting point from which anything is possible—I’ll Meet You in Your Dreams is a precious title that’s sure to become a family favorite.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

These beautiful picture books, perfect for gifting, offer moving depictions of love in all its forms.

As Christmas approaches, cuddle up with picture books that pack a surprising amount of holiday cheer into a mere 40 pages. They’re perfect for sharing with the little bundles of joy in your life: young readers!

★ Tiny Reindeer

Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’ Tiny Reindeer isn’t just small. In fact, he’s hoof-high to Santa’s “big, stamping, snorting reindeer.” Naylor-Ballesteros takes the tiny theme and runs with it, revealing entertaining new delights with every page turn. 

Tiny Reindeer yearns to be useful, but clever vignettes depict him tangled in reins and harnesses, taking an unexpected bath in a water bowl and covered in tape and twine after attempting to wrap gifts. Then he stumbles upon a letter from a girl asking Santa for a little reindeer to go with her small sleigh, which was crafted for her by her grandfather. “He wanted to make a reindeer too,” she writes, “but couldn’t in the end so my sleigh won’t ever fly anywhere.” 

Naylor-Ballesteros handles the death of a grandparent subtly and with touching sensitivity as Tiny Reindeer realizes this is his time to shine. Clad in a jaunty hat and scarf, he takes a flying leap into the back of Santa’s sleigh, parachutes down the girl’s chimney (using her letter as his chute) and then faces his most challenging obstacle yet: climbing the stairs.   

During this busy time of year, it’s easy for children to feel overlooked or left out of adults’ hustle and bustle. Young readers will adore Tiny Reindeer’s determined attempts to fit in and stand out. Naylor-Ballesteros paces his story perfectly, and every player, including the girl, Tiny Reindeer and Santa himself, gets their moment in the spotlight. Tiny Reindeer is a wonderful addition to the Christmas picture book canon that reminds us of the special gifts we all have to offer, no matter how tiny we might be.

The Christmas Owl

A unique blend of fact and fiction, The Christmas Owl follows a little owl during an incredible true journey that took place in 2020.

After delivering a spruce tree from Oneonta, New York, workers erecting the Christmas tree display at New York City’s Rockefeller Center discovered a saw-whet owl, the smallest owl species in the northeastern United States, huddled in its branches. The public was enchanted by the tiny hitchhiker, who was transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center in upstate New York run by Ellen Kalish, where he was given the name Rockefeller—Rocky for short.

Co-authors Kalish and Gideon Sterer (The Midnight Fair) transform this incident into a magical holiday tale centered on Little Owl as she tries to learn the meaning of Christmas. Ramona Kaulitzki’s illustrations set a festive mood from the start as Little Owl flies out ahead of a group of animals—moose, rabbit, skunk and squirrel—galloping through falling snow. In the distance, a village nestles in the valley below, dotted with towering evergreen trees. One of the trees is Little Owl’s home, destined to be cut down and transported far away. Kaulitzki’s art is bathed in beautiful shades of deep blue, giving each page a wintry glow. Warm touches of yellow, including twinkling lights and the yellows of taxis, trucks and workers’ jackets, add to the effect.

The book focuses on Little Owl’s perspective every step of the way. Her wide eyes reflect wisdom and surprise simultaneously, whether she’s gazing around at a strange new urban landscape or looking up into Kalish’s kind, welcoming eyes at the wildlife center. Little Owl’s innocent confusion about Christmas, a new word she hears from both humans and her woodland friends, reflects many children’s sense of wonder about the season. As Kalish nurses Little Owl back to health, the owl ponders, “Could Christmas be caring? Could Christmas be kind?”

Fascinating back matter provides a nice contrast to the anthropomorphized tale. Kalish describes exactly what happened to the real Rocky, including her release into the wild to begin migrating south. The Christmas Owl is an intriguing fable that offers young readers much to contemplate, including the impact of human actions on the natural world.

Zee Grows a Tree

How do Christmas trees grow so big and tall, anyway? Zee Grows a Tree cleverly weaves the details into a fictional story that juxtaposes a child’s growth against that of a Douglas fir. 

On the day that Zee Cooper is born, a seedling pokes up from the soil at her family’s tree farm. Her parents put it in a pot labeled “Zee’s Tree,” and their baby girl learns to love and nurture it as it grows alongside her, eventually inspiring her to want to become a botanist when she’s an adult. 

Author Elizabeth Rusch excels at showing similarities between Zee and her tree. At age 4, Zee is shorter than the kids in her class. “Everyone grows at different rates,” Zee’s father tells her. She repeats his reassuring words as she measures her tree, which is also shorter than the other trees. Rusch adds touches of drama throughout, depicting Zee going to great lengths to protect her fir from extreme heat and cold. Rusch also incorporates brief factual notes about fir trees on various pages, as well as more extensive information at the end of the book.

Will Hillenbrand’s lively illustrations infuse each page of this quiet, measured story with action and emotion. As the tree thrives, Zee soars through the air in a tire swing, heads off on the school bus and bounces a soccer ball on her knee. Hillenbrand expertly portrays the strong bond that Zee feels with her tree, capturing the curiosity, concern and compassion on her face as she inspects the sapling. When she camps alongside it during a heat wave, her lantern casts a lovely glow as she reads aloud to her tree, her gray cat curled up at her knee, ice cubes spread around the tree’s trunk to ward off the effects of drought. 

Although Zee Grows a Tree ends on a seasonal note (don’t worry, Zee’s tree stays firmly planted in the ground), this informative tale will be enjoyed by young naturalists at any time of year. 

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Share these delightful picture books with the bundles of joy in your life.

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