2020 Gift Guide: The “Giftiest” Books for Ages 1-16

November 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

With just two Gift Guide installments remaining, today’s feels extra special. These are the super duper gifty books. The showstoppers. The stunners. Books packaged with metallic accents or satin bookmarks or wow graphics. Books worth their weight, if you will. All of them are non-fiction, and many capitalize on newfound or revitalized interests and hobbies inspired by the curve ball that was 2020 (gardening! outerspace! the great outdoors! apologies, but I’ve got nothing for the sourdough crowd). Lest I start sounding like a broken record, All Thirteen: The Incredible True Story of the Thai Cave Soccer Team would surely be included here as well.

And here’s the grooviest thing. If you only have time to shop one list this holiday season, shop this one: I’ve got picks for as young as one and as old as sixteen!

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature
by Rachel Williams; illus. Freya Hartas
Ages 5-10

Last spring—when leaving the house for a walk was the Newsworthy Event of every day—I found myself taking pictures of budding trees and critters at work. Was spring of 2020 really that much more colorful, or had we never paused in quite this way to appreciate it? Perhaps as valuable for adults as kids, Slow Down reminds us that every day, every hour, the natural world is transforming around us. To miss these moments is to miss out on beauty and wonder capable of transforming our own state of mind. Fifty double-page spreads invoke softly illustrated sequential panels to pay homage to these moments, from pollination and dew to rainbows and shooting stars. We marvel at a snail leaving a trail, a mother bird caring for her young, and a chick hatching from an egg. Packaged together, they’re proof positive of what’s waiting outside our window, should we slow down enough to notice. (Keep your eyes on my Instagram, where I’ll be running a Giveaway for this special title in the next week!)

WildLives: 50 Extraordinary Animals That Made History
by Ben Lerwill; illus. Sarah Walsh
Ages 7-12

WildLives was a saving grace last spring, when I needed to supplement my daughter’s virtual schooling. She spent hours poured over it, perusing the true stories of some of the most famous and fascinating animals of all time, including Ning Nong, “the elephant who saved a girl from drowning”; Sergeant Stubby, “the stray dog who became a war hero”; Laika, “the space dog”; and Clever Hans, “the horse who was taught mathematics.” I challenged her to choose one story and communicate it to us in some way. She chose the story of Knut, a polar bear cub who was rejected by his mother and raised by zookeepers. She took notes from the book and wove it into a multimedia presentation with photographs from the Internet. She did it entirely independently and without prodding, and this was notable because nothing else went this smoothly. All credit goes to the writing and pictures in this book!

Exploring the Elements: A Complete Guide to the Periodic Table
by Isabel Thomas; pictures by Sara Gillingham
Ages 12-16

I adore Isabel Thomas’ writing, so when I found out she had collaborated on this 219-page illustrated guide to the periodic table—the ultimate reference tool for scientists—I knew I’d found my son’s Christmas present. Then I received Exploring the Elements and was blown away by its accessible, innovative design, with a neon color scheme to boot. (Not to mention that the removable jacket cover hides the coolest version of the periodic table!) Color coded by similarities, each of the 118 chemical elements is given due attention—many of them across double spreads—from its letter symbol and atomic number to key properties, where it’s found, its atomic makeup, why it behaves as it does, and one to two robust paragraphs on its significance to humans and the natural world, written with Thomas’ characteristic insight, awe, and clarity. Whether your teen reads it straight through or pages through it on periodic whims, you’re going to have a hard time removing this from your coffee table.

Counting Creatures
by Julia Donaldson; illus. Sharon King-Chai
Ages 1-5

Packaged in a sturdy, metallic-accented cover, Counting Creatures (on shelves 11/24/20) hits all the preschool notes for guaranteed re-readings—rhyming text, lift-the-flaps, peekaboo holes, seek-and-find games, number recitation, scientific accuracy, and baby animals—but its illustrations place it in a class of its own. I don’t think it’s overselling to say this is some of the most stunning art I’ve ever encountered for very young children, from the lush landscapes to the expressive eyes. Storyteller favorite, Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo), invites us to count alongside her, opening a flap on each page to reveal the number of babies each animal has, from a bat (one baby) to a sheep (two lambs) to a leopard (three cubs), all the way to a frog (twenty-five tadpoles) and a final reveal that will have children flipping back to the beginning. Under each flap, we’re treated to a fun rhyme underscoring both the uniqueness of the animal and the shared experiences of youth.

In the Garden
by Emma Giuliani
Ages 5-10

2020 robbed us of many things, but home gardening was not one of them. No one takes more enthusiastically to the dirt than a homebound family during a pandemic! Boasting a whopping 11” by 15.75” trim size, with dozens of gorgeously designed and informative flaps, In the Garden has to be held to be believed. Rake, sow, plant, water, harvest: Plum and her brother, Robin, take young readers on a seasonal tour of their beloved greenhouse and garden, pausing for little fingers to peel back seeds, flowers, and vegetables to discover the growing secrets behind them. The marvels of the garden, including tips for controlling aphids, homegrown compost, and summer cuttings, are rivaled only by Parisian artist Emma Giuliani’s bold, colorful art. The book features an epigraph that reads: “Gardens are a kind of dream, like poetry, music, and algebra.” This book certainly is.

How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure
by John Rocco
Ages 12-15

To think I thought the world couldn’t possibly need another young reader’s book about the mission to the moon! Turns out my assumption massively underestimates the talent of author-illustrator John Rocco (best loved, if my son is any indicator, for his illustrated editions of the Percy Jackson books), who has created the most comprehensive and visually stunning chronicle of what was arguably the most ambitious, thrilling, and dangerous venture in human history. In 244 richly-packed pages, sporting a distinctly ‘60s color scheme, How We Got to the Moon answers every conceivable question behind man’s first steps on the moon. Along the way, it reveals the work of more than 400,000 unsung heroes, from engineers to welders to seamstresses. While my husband and son can’t get enough of the countless technical charts and diagrams—this book is an engineer’s dream—I relish the human interest stories, especially those of women pioneering in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Me and the World: An Infographic Exploration
by Mireia Trius; illus. Joana Casals
Ages 8-12

My daughter isn’t normally one for data-driven books, so I stood up and took notice when she kept returning to this one. In Me and the World, infographics take center stage, plotting the behaviors of our narrator, Lucia from Spain, against those of children and families around the world. Favorite breakfast foods, popular pets, school uniforms, social media usage, reading, and sports are covered, alongside more traditional global measures, like population, religion, language, climate, and family unit. Did you know that September is the most common birthday month in most places in the world (though outranked by July in the United States)? Or that, if you lived in Italy, kids get thirteen weeks of summer break? Yes, please.

I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast: A Celebration of Plants Around the World
by Michael Holland FLS & Philip Giordano
Ages 7-10

Plants touch almost every aspect of our lives, even the physical books we read (their pages and ink are made from birch, pine, soybean, and flax oil!). In I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast, 121 brilliantly-colored pages divulge the mysteries of the plant world. Where and how do plants grow? How do they adapt? How do they trick or trap us? How have their uses evolved, and how do they make their way into our everyday lives? (Spoiler alert: housing structures, musical instruments, sporting equipment, medicine, and much more.) There are even experiments to do at home, like leaf printing and invisible ink.

Climate Emergency Atlas: What’s Happening–What We Can Do
by Dan Hooke; foreward by Jamie Margolin
Ages 10-14

It’s hard not to imagine becoming a climate activist after studying this visually arresting atlas. (It’s definitely hard to stay silent, as evidenced by the way every time my son picks up this book, he begins reciting statistics to anyone in the vicinity.) Organized into four parts, the first offers a clear, detailed introduction to climate change; the last an extensive look at what government, businesses, and individuals can do to combat it. In between lies the magic: thirty dynamic maps illustrating the causes and impacts of climate change across the world—well beyond the melting of polar ice caps—including population growth, air travel, beef consumption, the fashion industry, extreme weather, species endangerment, and global displacement. I love how, in Climate Emergency Atlas, the single topic of global warming becomes a lens through which to study geography, weather, farming, manufacturing, engineering, and current events (the 2020 Australian brush fires get their own spread).

The Mysteries of the Universe
by Will Gater; illus. Angela Rizza & Daniel Long
Ages 6-10

Remember last year’s Gift Guide, where I introduced you to The Wonders of Nature and you oooohed and ahhhhed and made a place for it on your coffee table? The latest in this series, The Mysteries of the Universe, is every bit as lovely, with a tantalizing interstellar tour across 218 pages, from the planets of our Solar System to distant stars, galaxies, and head-scratching new discoveries. The photographs and illustrations are gorgeous, of course, but what continues to impress me most about this series, setting it apart from traditional science books, is its storybook language—clear, conversational, poetic at times—and its clean, uncluttered presentation. I think of it as science for us English majors, although if my son is any indication, scientifically-wired minds will still find much to appreciate. Just like its predecessor, it comes with gold-edged pages and a silk bookmark.

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§ 5 Responses to 2020 Gift Guide: The “Giftiest” Books for Ages 1-16

  • […] for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as […]

  • Ellen K says:

    This round-up is exactly what I was looking for! We’re getting a kindle for my daughter for Christmas (covid19 has libraries in our area shut down), but I wanted a few full-color books to balance out the black-and-white kindle!!

  • Tara Goldsmith says:

    I find it difficult to search.
    Im keen to find early reading chapter books to get my son reading. I think you had a post on this but I can’t find it.
    I think my weird school was in that post and it’s my sons first book.
    Please can you direct me to that post?

    • thebookmommy says:

      Hi Tara, thanks so much for reaching out. First, I’m sorry the site is giving you trouble. I totally agree. My wish is to redesign it soon to improve accessibility. Secondly, on the subject of early chapter books, a couple thoughts. On my homepage, under categories, there is one for Early Chapter Books (https://whattoreadtoyourkids.com/category/early-chapter-books-ages-5-8/) so you can scroll through that for some ideas. I can’t think of one I did recently or one with My Weird School so not sure to which one you are referring. I did talk on Instagram fairly recently about an early graphic novel series titled Pee Bea & Jay–maybe you say that (@thebookmommy)? But here’s the good news: I am working on an early reader round up AS WE SPEAK. It will come out before the end of the month right here on the blog and will highlight a number of new releases. Some will be early readers, but I will include some early chapter books as well. I’ll end my listing some of my son’s favorite early chapter books back when he was a big Dan Gutman fan (most of these are series): Kung Pow Chicken, The Dragon Babysitter, Mr. Pants, The Bad Guys, Binky the Space Cat, Dragonbreath, Catstronauts, The Chicken Squad, Mercy Watson, Bunjitsu Bunny, Kingdom of Wrenly. Good luck and thanks for being a fan!

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