The best Hanukkah presents are books. Even if your iPod-craving child screams in grief as she rips off the gift-wrap, smile serenely in the knowledge that you are a superior parent to the consumerist iPod buyers and your child will get into Yale while theirs has to go to a state school.
Seriously, these books are awesome.
For a baby:
One-year-olds are not into the history of the Assyrian Greeks, whether the story of the eight-day miracle oil should be taught as literal truth or whether acculturation is a blessing or a curse. One-year-olds are into “ooh, pretty.” So Karen Katz’s “Where Is Baby’s Dreidel?” (Little Simon) should be right up their alley. The colors are bright, the flaps are easy to manipulate, the dreidel-finding is fun for the wee, the narrative is suitably simple, and Baby has delightful fashion sense and a perfectly round head.
For a toddler or preschooler:
I had wanted to use this list to point out unheralded literary delights. But my 3-year-old, Maxine, immediately glommed onto “Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity” (Hyperion) by the not-remotely-obscure Mo Willems. She pored over the vivid photos of Brooklyn settings with superimposed cartoon-y illustrations of two girls and their beloved toy bunnies. It’s graphically yummy, and like its predecessor, it won’t make grownups want to rip their eyeballs out when they have to read it a gazillion times.
Ditto for “Llama Llama, Mad at Mama” by Anna Dewdney (Viking Juvenile). Its cover, showing a deeply peeved, surly little llama, hooves crossed, sitting in a shopping cart, makes me laugh. “Look at knees and stand in line/Llama Llama starts to whine. It’s no fun at Shop-O-Rama./Llama Llama/MAD at Mama!” As in its predecessor, “Llama Llama, Red Pajama (Viking Juvenile, 2005), which deals with nighttime separation anxiety, this book teaches little kids to cope with big emotions.
A more subtly emotional work is Caldecott medalist Simms Taback’s “I Miss You Every Day” (Viking Juvenile). Based on Woody Guthrie’s song “Mail Myself to You,” it’s about a little girl who misses someone who is never named: “When the sun is shining bright/or when it’s wet and gray/I think about you all the time/I miss you every day.” She mails herself, in a box with holes for her fabulous sneakers, to this person, and all ends happily… but an air of melancholy and mystery lingers. “She misses her Grandma,” Maxie says confidently. Perhaps; “I Miss You Every Day” taps into universal feelings of loss and longing. Befitting the poignant story, the book’s visual style is less cluttered and lunatic than many of Taback’s other works, but it’s still bright, funny, whimsical, folk-arty and full of tiny detail. And it comes with an envelope, so kids can write their own “I miss you” letter.
For the elementary-age reader:
Our friend Raphael is a budding scientist. I’d buy him “Living Color” by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin) and “Spiders” by Nic Bishop (Scholastic). Jenkins’s book is about how, evolutionarily, color helps animals survive. It features ravishing, collaged images of brilliantly hued animals, plus lots of fascinating factoids. “Spiders,” on the other hand, offers up super-tight, gorgeous-meets-scary color photos and cool spider info. (There are more than 38,000 kinds of spiders! A jumping spider can leap 20 times its body length!) At the end, Bishop, a photographer with a doctorate in biological sciences, explains how he gets shots like the one of a spider soaring through the air with legs splayed, dragline flying behind it. You’ll never look at Charlotte the same way.
If your kid’s more interested in dreams than in realism, she might love “The Pink Refrigerator” by Tim Egan (Houghton Mifflin). Junk-shop owner Dodsworth, a rotund, somber mouse in a prim bowler hat, leads a deliberately dull life until the day he encounters the eponymous appliance. More than that I will not say. Josie grabbed the book out of my pile of review copies and handed it back with a huge smile and shining eyes. “I adore, adore, adore this,” she said.
My own favorite kids’ book this year was “This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness” by Joyce Sidman (Houghton Mifflin). A fictional sixth grade teacher has her students read William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” a poem about saying “I’m sorry,” and then write their own apology poems. Each apology poem garners a response, usually from the person wronged, also in the form of a poem. Some are hilarious, some profoundly moving. Josie loved flipping back and forth between the apology poems and their replies, and imagining the relationships of the duo of correspondents in greater detail. Still, she was a bit too young to get all the nuances; adults should read this book on the High Holy Days. I can’t praise it enough.
Josie’s favorite chapter book this year was “Gooney the Fabulous” by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin). Jo adores all three Gooney Bird books, about a girl who likes to be “right smack in the middle of everything.” All are set in Mrs. Pidgeon’s second grade classroom, and all are about the joys of storytelling and the power of narrative. (In this one, the kids learn about fables.) They’re great vocabulary builders (I cannot express my joy at hearing my 6-year-old sigh about brown clothes, “They give me a feeling of ennui”) and best read in order, so buy all three instead of a fistful of irksome Junie B. Jones crap.
For a middle-schooler:
My pick for non-book-loving boys this year: “The Entertainer and the Dybbuk” by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow). It’s by a Newbery Medalist, but it’s total pulp… and I mean that as a compliment. One night in postwar Europe, The Great Freddie — a young ventriloquist and former GI — is possessed by a dybbuk, who turns out to be the ghost of a 12-year-old boy killed by Nazis. Freddie is a lousy ventriloquist, but the ghost turns him into a star, with better jokes and tricks, while using Freddie’s body to search for the SS officer who murdered him and his younger sister. It’s a page-turner, an adventure, often funny. Fleischman is a former magician and teenage vaudevillian; he’s also the father of Newbery Medal-winning writer Paul Fleischman, whose “Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella” (Henry Holt) received a ton of acclaim this year. Ach, such a talented family!
A very different Jewish-ish book is “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” by Lemony Snicket (McSweeney’s), with snazzy graphic design and cute illustrations by Lisa Brown. As the latke leaps from his bath of boiling oil and runs around screaming (wouldn’t you?), he meets a string of colored lights, a candy cane and a pine tree, none of whom understand his existential pain. “Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham,” suggests the colored lights. The latke is distressed about not being understood. Kids will love screaming along with the latke, page after deafening page, but the book’s more than a joke. It celebrates difference, mocks people’s obsession with the trappings of the holiday season as opposed to the meaning of individual holidays, shows cluefulness about the relative religious insignificance of Hanukkah, slyly points out that many winter holiday themes come from the same sources. “Different things can often blend together,” says the pine tree. “Let me tell you a funny story about pagan rituals.”
Another book that embraces difference is “Rickshaw Girl” by Mitali Perkins (Charlesbridge), about a resourceful, artistic Bangladeshi girl determined to help her poor family. She challenges norms about how girls are supposed to behave and channels her love of painting traditional patterns, alpanas, to save her family’s livelihood. The story is suspenseful, the descriptions of artistic process are rich and lovely, the exotic setting seems immediate and real, and the black illustrations by Jamie Hogan are soft and inviting. It’s an awesome girl-power story.
For older readers:
Again, I’m failing to trumpet a new literary light here, but “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown Young Readers), winner of a National Book Award, is perfection. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a teenage Spokane Indian from a Washington State reservation who realizes he’s got to get off the rez, with its alcoholism, poverty and hopelessness. So he transfers to a white high school in a wealthier community, infuriating other Indians while remaining invisible to his new classmates. His salvation lies in art: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” Those cartoons, by my friend Ellen Forney, pepper the text, and they are wonderful. Every adult should read this book. It is very, very sad and very, very funny.
An aside: Right after I read “The Absolutely True Diary,” I read “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (Knopf). Yikes. It’s bloated, repetitive, self-important, self-consciously liiiiiiiterary. There’s the germ of a wonderful book in these 550 pages (some striking imagery, memorable set pieces and the powerful central notion of a poor girl stealing books during the Holocaust), but if you’re gonna write a book the size of a cat, you’d better be J.K. Rowling. I’d rather read the Diary of Anne Frank three times, or Elie Wiesel’s “Night” four and a quarter times. I think many readers and reviewers gasped, “Shoah! Narrated by Death! Poetic!” and were cowed into applause. Alexie’s book is just as profound while being more consistently lyrical, with a more vivid main character and far less pretension.
(Feel free to e-mail me for a longer list of great 2007 books, at email@example.com.)