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Books make terrific gifts. But, if you have a little kid on your shopping list, it can be daunting to buy a book pretty much any time after year one. In the first year, if that kid has any bookish adults around, the adults have probably bought all the classics. You can’t wrap up a copy of "The Velveteen Rabbit" and expect the two year-old recipient to not already have it.
Of course there are worse things than a duplicate copy of a book. But assuming you don’t have access to the kid’s bookshelf or a shopping list from the parents, this list is meant to provide some safer suggestions for books that kids probably don’t already have. So, for those of you inclined to buy books for little ones this holiday season, this is my buying guide to some lesser-known, yet thoroughly enjoyable picture books (in no particular order):
#1: Tuesday by David Wiesner
Why I like it: This book has four words total. Four words on the first page, that’s it. It’s a wonderful book to get a conversation going with kids, particularly one that encourages critical thinking. Where do you think the frogs came from? Why? How can you tell? What’s going to happen next? How do you know?
There are literally a zillion questions you can ask a little one in order to get the kid to tell you the story. And, kids can change the story every time you pull the book out. This book doesn’t so much as tell a specific story as it teaches kids how to tell a story.
#2: George and Martha by James Marshall
Why I like it: Someone once told me that the George and Martha series was “solid relationship advice disguised as a children’s book,” and that’s pretty true. George and Martha are hippos and, more importantly, best friends. The stories tackle various small issues in their friendship; issues that could cause big fights but don’t because they handle them so deftly.
The first story in the first book of the series (simply titled, George and Martha) contains a wonderful lesson on the importance of being tactfully honest with friends when sharing feelings, embedded in a story ostensibly about pea soup. The other two stories cover how to ask for and respect privacy, and how to be kind to a friend who’s made a mistake that disappointed both of you. If you like that you see in the first book, there’s a Collected Stories volume that contains all the stories.
#3: The Gas We Pass by Shinta Cho
Why I like it: I admit it, I like farting. But farting can be a touchy subject. How do you talk to kids about a something that most people try to pretend isn’t happening?
With a factual, non-judgmental discussion of farts, peppered with sweet and sincere illustrations, of course. I love any book that aims to de-stigmatize totally normal bodily functions by talking about them in plain language. It even ends with a groan-worthy pun. If you enjoy someone else helping you talk about some of the more … pungent … aspects of human anatomy and physiology, this publisher has many other great books: "Everyone Poops," "Holes in Your Nose," "All About Scabs," "The Soles of Your Feet," etc.
#4: The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak
Why I like it: First, this book does not lie; it has no pictures. Second, it’s fresh off the presses (it was released in September) so it’s highly unlikely that many kids have it yet. Third, it’s really funny.
It’s the kind of book that prompts the reader to really engage with a winding series of hilarious twists and turns that entertain both the reader and the listener. Recommended for slightly older toddlers, 3+, for kids who are OK without pictures and have a bit more in the way of language skills.
#5: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Illustrated by Robert Lawson
Why I like it: Do you have a kid who’s a little different and happy being a little different? A free spirit? A quiet kid who prefers a calm spot to chaotic group play?
Ferdinand is an introverted, happy bull who goes against the grain in terms of what bulls are “supposed to do.” His mom has some concerns but ultimately she sees that he is happy just the way he is and supports him in being his true self. The only possible drawback is having to explain bullfighting to a curious kid.
#6: The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka, Illustrated by Lane Smith
Why I like it: Maybe after reading all those stories that teach good, wholesome values you need something a bit ridiculous? This is it! Unlike the gingerbread man who can’t get people to stop chasing him, the Stinky Cheese Man can’t get anyone TO chase him. The abrupt, unexpectedly bad ending for the Stinky Cheese Man is sure to give the toddler in your life a WTF-double-take and you a moment of existential exploration.
#7: Happy to be Nappy by bell hooks, Illustrated by Chris Raschka
Why I like it: If you know kids with nappy hair, curly hair, frizzy hair, or just plain unruly hair, this is the book that will reassure them that their hair is OK. More than OK, it’s great. Selfishly, I totally needed this book when I was a little kid.
#8: If You’re Afraid of the Dark Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens
Why I like it: For years, I bought this book for adults who were going through a tough time. It takes the classic “if life gives you lemons …” proverb to all sorts of creative heights. It’s relentlessly encouraging. Edens’ colorful illustrations evoke all the fun and silliness of "Yellow Submarine" and they’re a perfect match for the book’s whimsical approach to life’s crappier days. Excellent for a kid -- or a parent -- who’s had a tough day and needs to hear that tomorrow is a different day. A positive attitude can’t fix everything but it goes a long way and this little book helps you get there.
Of course your best buying guide is kids themselves. If you have ready access to the kids’ reading materials, make a note of any of your favorites that are missing from their collections. If you are lucky enough to get to read to a kid regularly, take note of which books seem to elicit the most enthusiasm or generate the most “read it again!” pleas. And, when all else fails, just slip a copy of the receipt in the book.
Your turn! What picture books would you suggest that you don’t think are commonly bought for kids?
*Note: I have not been paid for any of these recommendations nor do I have a financial stake in any of these books.