Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well).

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny Broom

The six “galleries” span invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals; each family is given several pages to showcase stand-out species, from cephalopods to skates, from gila monsters to birds of prey, from bats to hoofed mammals.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny Broom

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny Broom

Animalium doesn’t stop at sheer beauty. It presents informative facts opposite each of its illustrations. I’ll admit that Steve Jenkins’ The Animal Book (profiled in my 2013 holiday gift guide) would still get first place for compelling “encyclopedia” content; but my children love that, in Animalium, they get to track the tiny number next to each specimen to its corresponding “caption” on the opposite page. For each animal, the common name is given, along with its Latin name, plus a line or two about a distinguishing trait. Truthfully, the biggest problem a parent is going to have with this book is getting the child to hang on a page long enough to read it, resisting the urge to turn and reveal yet another visual masterpiece. This is a gift that makes the animal kingdom come alive from your living room couch (bonus: while you get to wear pajamas).

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise GayAlternatively, this holiday season, you could give a book that’s not just a book—it’s a book about how books are thought up. It’s about how authors compose stories, how they transport their ideas through art, and how children can do this very same thing right now. I kid you not: the first time I finished reading this book with my son, he went straight for his paints and set up a story-making station at our kitchen table. As a parent, you can’t make up something more perfect than that.

At a whopping 60 pages, Mary-Louise Gay’s delightful—and multi-faceted—Any Questions? (Ages 5-9) starts with kids asking questions, the some questions that the author-illustrator herself most commonly hears when she presents her books at schools. (You might know Gay her from her delicious picture book series about the imaginative, red-haired Stella, who tromps around forests and beaches, trailed by her younger brother, Sam). Questions like “How did you learn to draw?” “Where does a story start?” “What is your favorite color?” and “Can your cat fly?” are fired at Gay (our off-page narrator) and will strike an immediate chord with all children listening to this book.

(Incidentally, the speech bubbles peppered throughout the book are perfect for early readers and invite a wonderful collaborative experience of reading with your children.)

(Incidentally, the speech bubbles peppered throughout the book are perfect for early readers and invite a wonderful collaborative experience of reading with your children.)

As Gay begins to explain her organic creative process (“if you stare long enough at a blank piece of paper, anything can happen”), the schoolchildren run and dance alongside the different renditions, adding thoughts of their own along the way.

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

Gay explores the way a color palette can direct the setting of a story.

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

“Sometimes, a story starts with words or ideas floating out of nowhere. Some words are captured and written down…”

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

Right before the readers’ eyes, a story begins to take form.

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

The story morphs through various interruptions (nah, that elephant doesn’t look quite right there; nah, that story sounds too familiar), until cutting and pasting and sketching “shake[s] my ideas around and turns[s] them upside down…Suddenly, I know who lives in the forest…a giant, a shy young giant with birds nesting in his hair.” And so begins “The Shy Young Giant,” a story within a story, a story every bit as lovely as Mary-Louise Gay’s other works, no less for the random, innovative contributions from her junior squad of co-authors.

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

Any Questions ends—not with your typical “The End”—but with “The Beginning,” which seems perfectly suited to what Gay has done here. Giving this book as a gift is like seeding the juices of creativity, inviting children to share in the creative process, validating their prolific questions and ideas as powerful, as beautiful. Regardless of how many books or toys or things a child already has: there’s always room for a book that offers Beginnings.

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

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Review copy of ANIMALIUM provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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