Editors' Picks: Best gifts for 2021

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.

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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 Readersis 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 Spinesbrims 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.

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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. 

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

Some poets have the power to illuminate and articulate the most secluded parts of a reader's heart and mind. In these new books, three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.

Such Color

Such Color: New and Selected Poems provides a welcome overview of the career of former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. The cumulative effects of history and identity are central to much of the work in this magisterial book. In poems such as "A Hunger So Honed," Smith probes human motivation and the nature of desire: "perhaps we live best / In the spaces between loves, / That unconscious roving, / The heart its own rough animal." 

Smith also explores Blackness as a communal experience, one that connects her with past generations and those to come. In "Photo of Sugarcane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891," she sees herself in the figures captured on camera: "I would be standing there, too. / Standing, then made to leap up / into the air. Made to curl / and heave and cringe. . . ." These are poems of possibility, as Smith considers the past while looking for a way forward.

Goldenrod

Communication in all its varying modes is a recurring theme, from social media posts and handwritten notes to the unexpected autocorrections of text messages. "In the Grand Scheme of Things" explores the limits of language: "We say the naked eye / as if the eye could be clothed. . . . We say that's not how / the world works as if the world works." Throughout this wise, lucid collection, Smith captures the wonder and bewilderment that come with being human. She's excellent company for readers in need of connection.

In Maggie Smith's wonderfully companionable collection of poems, Goldenrod, she takes on timeless topics such as nature, history, family and memory. In "Ohio Cento," she writes, "What we know of ourselves / gets compressed, layered. Remembering / is an anniversary; every minute a commemoration / of being." 

Poet Warrior

In her beautifully executed memoir Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo recalls her upbringing as a member of the Muscogee tribe in Oklahoma and reflects upon her development as a writer. Harjo, who is serving her third term as U.S. Poet Laureate, grew up with an abusive stepfather and a creative, hardworking mother. She learned early on that literature could provide solace and escape, and she takes stock of her poetic influences in the book, counting Audre Lorde and N. Scott Momaday as key figures in her development.

Harjo mixes poetry and prose, history and memory, Native lore and family stories to create a collagelike account of her experiences. "As I near the last doorway of my present life, I am trying to understand the restless path on which I have traveled," she writes. Fans of nonfiction and poetry alike will savor this sublime memoir.

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Three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.

History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations. There are even lessons in how to survive a sea monster attack—because you just never know.

Relics

Relics: A History of the World Told in 133 Objects is my idea of the perfect coffee-table gift book. Billed as "four billion years in the palm of your hand," it's small enough not to be cumbersome, weighty enough to be substantial and full of colorful photos and intriguing text. Open it to any random page and get lost in the images of tiny relics and their histories, ranging from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid fragment to a tiny piece of Winston Churchill's faux leopard-skin hand muff. (Poor circulation in his later years caused Churchill's hands to get cold.) The book is part of the Mini Museum project, intended to share a collection of hand-held bits of wonders from around the world—a whole exhibition, Polly Pocket-style. 

Young and old will be enticed by the variety of natural, historical and cultural tidbits, including a specimen of petrified lightning from the Sahara, a piece of a Martian meteorite, coal from the Titanic and a morsel of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake. Enjoy at your leisure, with no museum crowds invading your space. 

★ Original Sisters

Award-winning artist Anita Kunz certainly made the most of her COVID-19 lockdown: She began researching and painting portraits of more than 150 extraordinary women from ancient times to the present, many whose stories have been lost to history or whose glory has been stolen by men. The result, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, brings these heroines to life in wonderfully bold portraits, each accompanied by a paragraphsummarizing her notable life. These portraits are so vivid that readers will feel as though they are meeting these women face-to-face—and believe me, you will feel their power.

You'll recognize many women's names, like Temple Grandin, Nina Simone and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but others may be new, such as Amanirenas, the partially blind African warrior queen who defeated Augustus Caesar. Patricia Bath, the first Black female ophthalmologist, invented a medical device to remove cataracts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who led a parade on horseback in New York City to advocate for voting rights. A wonderful gift for friends, family or yourself, Original Sisters is an inspiring springboard for further study of these noteworthy souls.

★ The 1619 Project

For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country's original sin: the moment in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived, when a ship docked at the colony of Virginia to deliver 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa. While many books have addressed enslavement and its repercussions, few, if any, have done so in such an imaginative, all-encompassing way, incorporating history, journalism, fiction, poetry and photography to show the cataclysmic repercussions of that pivotal moment.

A superb expansion of the New York Times Magazine's "1619 Project" issue, this book contains 18 essays as well as 36 poems and stories that examine how slavery and its legacy of racial injustice have shaped the U.S. over the last 400 years. Each piece was curated by MacArthur "genius grant" winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who pitched the original "1619 Project" to the Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to it. The book's many talented contributors include Ibram X. Kendi, Terry McMillan, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, ZZ Packer, Darryl Pinckney, Claudia Rankine, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson and Jesmyn Ward. Seven essays are new, and existing essays have been substantially revised and expanded to include additional details. Black-and-white portraits have also been added—both historical and present-day images—as another way of allowing readers to look history in the eye.

A new concluding essay from Hannah-Jones explores economic justice, and her wonderful preface is a special standout. It's a powerful, personal essay in which she notes that she is "the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project."

The sheer breadth of this book is refreshing and illuminating, challenging each and every reader to confront America's past, present and future.

Make Good the Promises

As Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, "Slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation's most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream." What happened in between? Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, attempts to fill in those gaps, leading readers through Black history from 1865 to today. 

Presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book has a beautifully rendered and highly accessible narrative that's also methodically organized, with helpful timelines, colorful illustrations and photographs. The book does a particularly good job of laying out the long view of events and their consequences while shining a light on more recent incidents, such as #SayHerName, George Floyd's murder and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Make Good the Promises is a distressing yet essential, enlightening read.

How to Slay a Dragon

Medieval historian Cait Stevenson admits that she has sometimes "trampled over scholarly conventions in ways that will leave other medievalists curled up in agony." But armed with her passion for the Middle Ages, she has carved out a unique niche for herself, straddling the worlds of scholarly and popular history. Her fervor is contagious in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero's Guide to the Real Middle Ages

In a tongue-in-cheek but firmly historical way, Stevenson addresses the stereotypical events that happen in popular media set in and inspired by the Middle Ages, like saving a princess, digging for treasure, slaying a dragon and defeating barbarian hordes. Her writing is informative yet humorous (there's a chapter titled "How to Not Get Eaten"), so even if you're not a gamer or "Game of Thrones" fan, you'll find yourself riveted. In a section on bathing, she notes, "Twelfth-century abbess and prophet Hildegard of Bingen went so far as to suggest that natural hot springs were heated by the underground fires of purgatory, cleansing bathers' souls as well as their bodies." Stevenson may not be able to tell you where to find real dragons, but readers will have a blast getting ready for their quests. 

The Baseball 100

Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It's a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it's likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport.

Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they'll be all too ready to debate Posnanski's rankings. He's prepared for this, writing, "I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?" In fact, the author even teases, "I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I'll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2." Perhaps he'd better start writing now.

Patented

At over 1,000 pages, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents is thicker than an old phone book but much more fun to thumb through. Architectural designer Thomas Rinaldi frequently found himself getting lost in "odd internet searches" of design patents, eventually realizing that he was uncovering "a design historian's El Dorado, a proverbial rabbit hole of unfathomable depth." He sifted through more than 750,000 patents issued from 1900 to the present to come up with this collection of visual treats. 

The patents are presented chronologically, with line drawings and key information such as the date and designer's name. It's an interesting mix of many universally owned, everyday objects—ranging from teapots to barbecue grills, from salt and pepper shakers to the Fitbit—along with patents for much larger things, such as Pizza Huts and Boeing airplanes, unusual entries like the Mars Rover and famous designs like Eames chairs.

For some, this will become a trusted reference, but Patented will also appeal to historians, engineers and kids interested in how things used to look, plus anyone passionate about design, innovation and technology. One could even turn the pages and play a "name that item" game. Some are a cinch to guess, while others, like a 1930 "ozonizing apparatus," will likely leave you stumped. Once you start browsing, however, you may find yourself hooked.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking gift books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations.

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