I like buying books as gifts – for any occasion. I’ve even given books of poetry for weddings! I am often complimented on my choice of books for children, given for births, birthdays, grading, and so on. My favourite occasion is giving books to the elder child upon the arrival of their new sibling, which brings grins all around.
I have the advantage of being trained as a children’s librarian, and, like all librarians, our motto is “The right book for the right reader at the right time.”
The most obvious advice would be to find out what the child likes, or what books the child has enjoyed already. If you see the child often, or visit their home, you can easily pry out this information, but it might not be what you expect: maybe Sophie is learning the names of every dinosaur (and can tell you which ones were feathered), while Henry is obsessed with fart jokes! You will also have to hide your aspirations for their reading to find out the truth: I may have wanted to get my niece to read Jane Eyre, but she was keen on Sarah Dessen.
Next, you should consider the gravity of the occasion, and the parents’ feelings about it – especially when choosing a book for someone’s first or only child. Although a cute or funny book for a new baby is always welcome, the sentimental heart of a new mom often wants a book that comments on the momentousness of this profound life change. So, a book like Someday by Alison McGhee should hit the spot (reviewers would say it has “greeting card qualities.”) Unless the mom knows what kids are really like, in which case you should try Haiku Mama (Because 17 Syllables is All You Have Time to Read). The wash of emotions after childbirth or adoption will soon pass and you can select a rollicking tale for said child’s first birthday!
Seriously though, are you buying the book for the parent or the child? When choosing picture books for kids under 6, the parent will have to like the book enough to read it aloud. So there is no point buying Everyone Poops if you know that the parent will “accidentally” misplace it. On the other hand, there is a lot of sentimental drivel out there posing as picture books. One good indicator of this is a nostalgic lens: is the story told through the eyes of an older person looking back fondly on their childhood? If so, give it a pass: those kinds of stories are better told from Gram and Gramps’ memories, not from a stranger’s book (with watercolour illustrations, no doubt).
What about your favourite childhood books? It’s heart-warming to think of a new generation enjoying them. You’ll be surprised by your new insights when you return to your childhood favourites. Oh, the cruelty in Mother Goose and Beatrix Potter! I say: handle with care. If you grew up on Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak – great! But if you loved The Five Chinese Brothers, try to set aside your defence of the exciting story line and imagine how this book would be viewed in today’s world. For older children, is there a bookish adult who can mediate? For example, both The Little House in the Big Woods and Caddie Woodlawn are seen as beloved classics. Both contain vivid stereotypes of First Nations peoples: one as bloodthirsty savages, and the other as noble savages. If the child has no experience of ever meeting an aboriginal person, the stereotypes will be their only exposure, and they will stick. A child would be better served by being able to discuss these passages with a grown-up, rather than reading them alone.
Another issue is morality. Just like in Victorian times, families often choose books that impart a moral or are supposed to improve their children – hence the popularity of The Book of Virtues. I would argue that all lasting children’s literature delights and inspires, so you don’t have to search out books that develop character: just choose Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman rather than The Giving Tree, and you’re all set!
You can also subtly circumvent parents’ wishes by claiming you didn’t know that The Golden Compass was scary and mature, or that Captain Underpants was rude (well, OK, you probably wouldn’t get away with that one).
You don’t have to pick stories either. Non-fiction rules! Whether it’s a board book about the sounds that farm animals make, or a labelled book of road construction vehicles, or a giant Dorling Kindersley photo book about Star Wars or Lego – they all equal hours of immersion!
I have one stern warning. A 32-page picture book is a work of art, with every word and its placement selected carefully to support the overall effect. Board books and compendiums of an author’s work often have cropped illustrations and abridged texts. And need we say anything about Shepard’s Pooh versus Disney Pooh?
For casual book buyers, my only tip is to go beyond the remainder table and the books based on TV series, and spend some time reading picture books in the kids’ area. Or – gasp! – borrow a stack from the public library so you can spend some time getting to know them. If you are a new aunt or uncle and will be buying children’s books as gifts for years to come, this would be a great time investment!
By now you’re thinking that you have to tiptoe carefully and choose something politically correct. Not so! If you are not “up” on new kids’ books, you’ll be gob smacked by the variety and quality available.
Some of my favourite picture books from “recent” years are:
Whatever you do, don’t stop buying books for the kids in your life just because they can read on their own now, or they’re teens now, or they say they don’t like reading. Persist! Be the crazy book guy! As long as you don’t send them The Pilgrim’s Progress, they secretly like it 🙂