Ok, listen. I know I have something of a reputation for being able to find a book for any kid, but it's not like I'm some kind of genius. I ask them what they've been reading and what they've enjoyed and I try to come up with a book that's kind of like what they say they like, and when all else fails, I give them one of the Lunch Lady books. (Preorder Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit today!)
My usual question to a reader, adult or kid, is, "What's the last thing you read that you really liked?"
But I asked a sweet little brown-eyed first-grade girl last night what was the last book she read that she really liked, and she thought about it a little and said, "I guess it was that biography of Neruda."
"Neruda." I said. "Pablo Neruda? Dude!"
Wow. She got me. First grade and she's reading a 350-page book on a South American poet? I guess... that kid gets The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton and/or a book on Gandhi and/or a biography of Frida Kahlo that skips most of the horrendous physical injury and the adulterous husband. Oh tsk! I should have given her that Barbara Kerley Mark Twain bio! I hope that kid comes back, because next time I'll be ready!
Her sister was trying to figure out the order of the Anne of Green Gables books, which gave me a chance to talk up those Sterling Classics editions. I took Little Women with me to the radio station yesterday - oh listen to me on the radio, I'll be on the local NPR affiliate talking about gift books for children. In like an hour, so if you miss it, don't sweat it. The audio will be online by the end of the day.
So I recommended to that kid that she read Little Women over Christmas break. Little Women is such a great Christmas book. And after all, she had Anne of Green Gables in her hand... usually I don't thrust classics upon kids. They'll come to them on their own, or it will be assigned reading. I'll talk to parents about classics - as a family read, Heidi and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and that stuff can work. You get to pause and explain things, or gloss over stuff that is hard to understand but not important.
I also pimp the heck out of certain audio editions of classics. The library's copies of the Alfred Molina Treasure Island are wearing like little tube tops and hot pants because of the way I put them out on the street.
What else is good at Christmas? They've got a little time off and you have got to get them out from under your feet, because you've got to cook a goose and chili and seven kinds of cookies, and clean the house, and deal with the tree and the decorations, and there isn't enough Red Bull in the world to get me through wrapping all these dang presents, whose idea was it anyway to buy them like ten novelty t-shirts?
Arg. T-shirts are so hard to wrap. Why didn't I take my own advice and just buy them books? Books are EASY to wrap.
So I've (finally) started my own kids on Harry Potter. That first Harry Potter is a great Christmas book. You've got the train, and Harry's first-ever Christmas presents, and after all, all of Hogwarts Castle is like a big surprising present. It's like living and going to school inside a pop-up book.
The other book I love at Christmas is The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, one of my favorite books of all time. The old-fashioned carols and the candlelit hall, and Ms. Cooper's description of the deserted lane in winter, with the crows watching from the trees. All of Will's brothers crowd into their house for the holiday - it's like an AT&T ad plus Arthurian magic.
I just got my hands on Rachel Isadora's new The 12 Days of Christmas. I don't know about you, but I never really got that song. All the poultry, and the rings are probably nice, but then what does anyone want with milkmaids? So Rachel Isadora is from South Africa, and she sets the song in Africa, which helps a lot. It sort of makes sense that somebody in Africa might give hens as a gift.
The 5 gold rings are around the neck of an East African woman, and the 10 lords a-leaping are wearing Malian masks and costumes. And they're leaping because they're performing a traditional dance. Ok then! This book has so much energy and color, I think I like it even better than The Night Before Christmas she did last year. Although that dreadlocked Santa with the zebra-skin trim on his red suit is pretty sprightly.
What else? I talked up Niroot Puttapipat's edition of The Night Before Christmas on the radio. And not just because I wanted to say "Puttapipat" on the radio, although I'll admit to trying to work it in as many times as I could. No but really, that's a gorgeous book. The lacy cut-paper illustrations and the die-cuts, done in classy black and white with red and limited green accents - whoo. I bought that book.
And we'll read it on Christmas Eve. Will we? Ok maybe we'll read it on Christmas Eve. Big ol' atheists in this house, and we've been pretty agnostic about the whole Santa thing too, but I think our kids are old enough that they can appreciate the poem and make their own decision about Santa.
What we'll definitely read on Christmas Eve is The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. I figure if we read that every year until they're, say, 16 and 18, they'll be ready for us to switch to selections from David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice.
Ho, ho, HO!