Not these books. Fun books. Pretty books. Books that kids will be excited about getting, and will be happy to own. Books like the ones in this SUPER LONG POST. Read and enjoy.
There are so many excellent things to give this year that I am just going to list them out. Here's a handy table of contents:
DC Superheroes (thanks to Lisa Harlow for the tip-off on this one). For older children, up to and including your brother-in-law.
Out of Sight. Tons of enticing flaps to life and interesting facts, Out of Sight is this year's Life-Size Zoo. Although the authors of Life Size Zoo might argue that this year's Life Size Zoo is Life-Size Aquarium.
Star Wars: Millennium Falcon- A 3-D Owner's Guide Cut-outs and see-through sections put you right inside the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.
Really splash out with the newest from pop-up book legend Robert Sabuda, Beauty & the Beast: A Pop-up Book of the Classic Fairy Tale.
642 Things to Draw: Journal. Easy? or challenging. Nearly blank, this book dictates what you draw on every page. Draw a car. Spilt milk. A bird. Buy one for each of the artists in your family, then compare how each interprets the directives.
Little Monsters Cookbook - Uses kind of a lot of prepared foods (refrigerated breadstick dough, pudding mix, etc.) but the recipes are at a consistent ability level, it's well photographed, and it has a spiral binding, so it's my pick for specialty cookbook this season.
Betty Crocker's Kids Cook! - also spiral bound (why aren't all cookbooks spiral bound?), my pick for nonspecialty kids cookbook this season. Pretty sure those are Stephen Gilpin (Gecko & Sticky, Who Shrunk Daniel Funk) illustrations, too. UPDATE: Stephen says yes, and says they're on every page. That is good news: I prefer drawn illustrations in cookbooks to photography, especially if the cookbook's meant to be instructive.
Do Not Open - There are a couple new books of this style out this year, but for its mix of freaky facts and interesting little stories, this one is still my favorite.
Alienology (Ologies) - Shut up and buy it. So it's the most gimmicky series of books ever ever, kids spend hours opening all the little envelopes and exploring all the nooks and crannies of the Ology books. This morning, when my kids saw the giant bag of gift-idea books I'd brought home from the library last night, Alienology was the first thing they snatched up. So just buy it. You know they want it, and so do you.
LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary and The LEGO Book. This picture is actually from a couple years ago. They have at least three times as much LEGO now. Two generations of LEGO. We have Lego Salt & Pepper Shakers, a LEGO Alarm Clock, and LEGO watches. If they only made a minivan out of the stuff.
What the World Eats. Such an interesting book. Families and food, all around the world. This edition is for young adults.
Built to Last - David Macaulay's classic books Castle, Cathedral, and Mosqueall under one roof (so to speak). Or buy those books separately: this anthology version is a smaller trim size, and so it lacks some of the physical awe the individual books evoke.
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All the Things I Love About You by LeUyen Pham. My favorite depictions of a baby/toddler since the out-of-print 101 Things to Do with a Baby. LeUyen Pham has the same gift for drawing gesture and expression as Jan Ormerod does.
Make Way for McCloskey: A Robert McCloskey Treasury. Start 'em off right with a big book that includes Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine and more.
M Is for Metal!: The Loudest Alphabet Book on Earth. Reassure them that just because they've become parents, they don't have to stop rockin'. Yeah that's right - lie to them.
Grandparents love giving books of fairy tales. I've been through all the anthologies I could get my mitts on, and these are the ones I recommend for their beauty, brevity, and choice of stories.
The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies - Pretty pretty language and lovely imagery in stories you may not know already, illustrated by Garth Williams. Garth Williams you know because he illustrated the Little House books and Charlotte's Web. Lovable, with no peril.
Classic Fairy Tales, illustrated by Scott Gustafson - All the best-known classics, beautiful glowing painted illustrations. Each individual story is quite long though, so this is maybe for the independent reader.
Jan Pieńkowski The Fairy Tales - My all-time favorite, for Jan's magically exquisite silhouette art that decorates every page, for the brevity of each tale, and for the marbled endpaper backgrounds of some of the art. Can be hard to find.
Also look for: Kingfisher Book of Classic Animal Stories - The Kingfisher anthologies collect tales and illustrations by all different authors and illustrators. They are always nice collections, and include excerpts from classic books, encouraging further reading.
Several series are complete this year and so are ready to be delivered in handy, deluxe boxes.
A character in a book I just read cracked a zombie across the bridge of the nose with a copy of The Gormenghast Novels, and that tickled me, and made me recall how wonderful and satisfying it was to read Mervyn Peake's rich, darkly funny classic fantasy series, a precursor to series like Monster Blood Tattoo and His Dark Materials (also available as a box set).
The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod Boxed Set. Does high school bum him out? Vlad's adventures will show him a little bright side - at least he's not a vampire!
The Clock Without a Face. Real-life treasure is just waiting to be found if you decipher the clues in the illustrations! (Or be lazy like me and just enjoy the book.)
He or she is resistant to sitting down with a chapter book for fun? Hey, some kids are. Look around you on the airplane - some adults are too. No big. Get that kid a magazine subscription! The writing is just as good (if not better, in the case of SI Kids), the content is varied and interesting, and reading magazines reinforces the idea that reading is the way to find out more about the things you're interested in. In age order:
Cricket. For kids 9-14, stories, poetry, recipes, puzzles, etc.
Odyssey. Science, for kids 10 and up.
New York Times Upfront (teen level)
Game Informer (adult level, but that's not saying much)
Amazon has a promotion going - through December 11, spend at least $30 in the Magazine Store and receive a $10 promotion code to use anywhere on Amazon.com.
Peter Spier's Christmas - out of print but if you can find it, it's wonderful.
Did your family read A Christmas Carol or The Night Before Christmas aloud on Christmas Eve when you were a kid? (Those are both really nice editions, by the way.) You could do that with your own kids, I suppose, although the Dickens is kind of a haul, but why not do The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story or The Lump of Coal? Ten years of that, and they'll be ready for the family readaloud from David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice when they're teenagers. Christmas just isn't Christmas without your annual dose of The Santaland Diaries!
I'll be on WYPR, Baltimore's NPR station, December 21st at 9am talking to Tom Hall of Maryland Morning about great books to give kids for the holidays in case you're still stuck. Afterwards, the on-air booklist will be on their site, along with a podcast of my talk with Tom.
And one of those mommy blogs wrote up a neat idea about making an Advent calendar (which my 7 year old calls an Advil calendar, which, let's face it, some years is pretty accurate) out of picture books.
As you plow through your holiday gift shopping, please don't forget those less fortunate. Reader to Reader is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that spreads literacy through book & computer donations and innovative literacy programs that transform struggling students into engaged lifelong learners. Please consider a donation to this successful organization as part of your year-end giving. Or wrap a few new books and donate them to your local toy drive.