2021 Gift Guide: The Show Stoppers

November 18, 2021 § 6 Comments

(A reminder that all the books in my Gift Guide are available for purchase at Old Town Books here in Alexandria, VA, or on their website. Use KIDS21 for free gift wrapping and $5 shipping on orders over $25; one order per address, please. Thank you for supporting our indie bookstore!)

Those of us raising bibliophiles—or, should I say, those of us prone to over-indulging on books all year long—are sometimes stumped about what to wrap up for the holidays. What books differentiate themselves as holiday-worthy? Of course, I personally think a great book is as much at home under a Christmas tree as packed in with the groceries on a random Thursday…but I do appreciate that some books have show-stopping power.

And so, I give you these selections for kids and tweens. With a promise that parents will enjoy them almost as much.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright: An Animal Poem for Each Day of the Year
edited by Fiona Waters; illus. Britta Teckentrup
Ages 3-103

Oh, my heart. I have been waiting for this treasure ever since its predecessor, Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year, came out—one of my most popular Gift Guide posts ever. That book sat on our breakfast table for an entire year, and we took turns—correction: fought over—reading the daily poem aloud over our oatmeal and cereal. When I heard Fiona Waters had an animal-themed version in the works? Well, I knew before I ever saw it that it would find its way into another Gift Guide.

And then I saw Britta Teckentrup’s illustrations, and I was blown away. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright: An Animal Poem for Each Day of the Year is everything I hoped for and more. The 366 poems (don’t forget Leap Year) range from beloved classics, like the William Blake title poem, to contemporary works from around the world. Some are meditative, others are funny; some are about a single moment in time, others tell a story. Framing the delightful poems, the illustrations—from lions to ladybirds, swallows to seahorses—are positively gorgeous. That’s over 300 pages of illustrations: when was the last time you saw anything like that in a children’s book?

Each poem is assigned to a specific day of the year, which means you know exactly which poem to read on any given day. Kids will love finding their birthday poems, and holidays like Valentine’s Day and Groundhog Day will feel all the more special with a poem to kick them off. This is quite literally the gift that keeps giving all year long.


Lore of the Wild: Folklore & Wisdom from Nature
by Claire Cock-Starkey; illus. Aitch
Ages 6-11

Why have dogs long been considered faithful companions, while cats have been regarded with suspicion? Which animals are considered to have transformative powers, which are omens of good fortune, and which can predict the weather? Have you ever wondered why spiders are key characters in creation myths, or why dragons are so easy to spot in the clouds?

Another enchantingly illustrated anthology, Lore of the Wild: Folklore & Wisdom from Nature is perfect for the wild child in your life—the one who communes with nature, the one who loves mythology and fairytales and stories about the supernatural. The book is organized into sections: animals; birds; bugs; flowers, plants and trees; weather lore; and omens. Each section kicks off with a folktale or myth from a different part of the world, before examining the legends or ancient wisdom surrounding that subject.

My favorite spreads are the ones on good luck, bad luck, and lucky charms. I was a superstitious child. The night before a big test in middle or high school, I always set out worry dolls on my nightstand. I’ve always loved my son’s enthusiasm for seeking out four-leaf clovers. Did you know in Britain it’s considered bad luck to make a fire from wood that has been struck by lightning, or that the luckiest way to illustrate an elephant in India is with its trunk up?


Listified! Britannica’s 300 Lists That Will Blow Your Mind
by Andrew Pettie; illus. Andrés Lozano
Ages 8-12

Got a child whose brain is a magnet for factoids? Who follows you around spouting random trivia and enjoys correcting you every time you speak? (No? Just mine?) My son was going to get this as a Christmas present, only he discovered it in my secret stash and hasn’t put it down since. I also suspect this book would make terrific toilet reading. (That’s a thing, right?)

Listified is all lists. 300 lists across 391pages, to be precise, along with spot art and photography. The lists span different categories, from space, animals and nature, to the body, inventions, and game changers. This means that, in the same book, you could have a list of the ten biggest recorded earthquakes, the fifteen most common human dreams, and twelve of the most unusual jobs. Ever wonder how many tiny rubber tires are made by LEGO each year? Or inventions already in development that will shape the future? How about a list of the most unlikely laws around the world? (On the Pacific Island of Samoa, it’s illegal to forget your wife’s birthday. Just sayin’.)

Did you know you’re more likely to be hit by a falling coconut (1 in 50 million) than win the lottery (1 in 300 million)? Better stay in school, kids, because you’re going to need that day job. And this book.


Doodling 101: A Silly Symposium
by Mo Willems
Ages 5 and up

Raise your hand if you credit Mo Willems with getting you through the spring of 2020? (I mean, along with wine and cheese and a lot of Schitt’s Creek, of course.) My kids looked forward every morning to their lunchtime with Mo, where he’d entertain them on the web series he produced in conjunction with the Kennedy Center (and I got a blessed break from playing teacher). Now, all of this Mo fun is packaged in a hands-on instructional book!

With the help of Mo’s two poodle assistants, kids can earn their MMD (Master Mo Doodler) degree. They’ll learn to draw (and animate!) Mo’s beloved storybook characters, including the pigeon who wants to drive the bus, Elephant and Piggie, and Knuffle Bunny (my favorite). They’ll also get prompts for creating their own characters—out of the letters in their name, for example—and materials to make board games and pop-out figures.


Sight: Glimmer, Glow, SPARK, FLASH!
by Romana Romanyshyn & Andriy Lesiv
Ages 7-11

And the 2021 award for the raddest graphics in a STEM book goes to Sight: Glimmer, Glow, SPARK, FLASH!, an equal parts fun and fascinating exploration of sight with arresting visuals, creative fonts, and a neon color palette.

Each of the spreads in this large-format picture book is devoted to a different aspect of sight (or visual impairment), including parts of the eye, color, glasses, telescope technology, mirrors, camouflage, Braille, optical illusion, photography, and the way sight differs among animals and humans.

How do our eyes register facial expressions? How is color able to influence our emotions? And what about the things we cannot see? (“It is impossible to see a soul, but one can believe in its existence.”) A terrific book for reading aloud or independent perusal.


Sound: Shhh…Bang…POP…BOOM!
by Romana Romanyshyn & Andriy Lesiv
Ages 7-11

OK, so this is cheating a little, because this book actually came out in 2020. But it makes the perfect companion gift with Sight, so I’m including it in this year’s Gift Guide. It’s every bit as captivating (or should I say pop-tivating) as Sight.

The art in Sound: Shhh…Bang…POP…BOOM! hums and buzzes as it speaks to the qualities, sources, and uses of sound, as well as how we process auditory signals. The cacophony of life is everywhere, from trombones and gramophones, to rumbling bellies and crying babies, to honking cars and chirping birds. Have you ever thought of your home as a symphony of whooshes, stomps, clicks, and rings? Several pages are devoted to music and melody: “in the sea of known and unknown sounds, we look for order and harmony. This is how music is born.”

Just like Sight touches on visual impairment, the absence of sound is explored here as well, including through sign language, meditation, or non-spoken forms of communication (like flowers to say “I love you”). I’m just glad I finally have a scientific explanation for why my ears sometimes ring.


Natural History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth
by Smithsonian Institute
All ages

If you’re looking for a book worth its weight, this one’s a sure bet. Smithsonian has freshly updated their Natural History volume (I guess go ahead and use the old one in your fireplace?), with 664 pages dedicated to our planet’s extraordinary diversity of life—animals, plants, rocks, minerals, fungi, and microorganisms—and a whopping 6,000 stunning photographs.

Written by a worldwide team of natural history experts, and the only reference book to offer a complete visual survey of all kingdoms of life, Natural History is the perfect addition to every family’s coffee table, where your nature lover can ogle at granites, grapevines, microbes, and mammals to their heart’s content.


And that’s a wrap! Stay tuned for forthcoming Gift Guide posts: next up, graphic novels!

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