For Kids, Just Plain Fun Is a Comfort and a Joy What kid wouldn't like a comforting, joyful book for a holiday gift? A lot of 'em. For true holiday joy, make sure the books you give are truly enjoyable. Here are suggestions for different ages, stages and interests.
NPR logo For Kids, Just Plain Fun Is a Comfort and a Joy

For Kids, Just Plain Fun Is a Comfort and a Joy

In Chowder, author Peter Brown delivers a satire of upscale, over-indulgent dog owners that both parents and kids will appreciate. hide caption

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What kid wouldn't like a comforting, joyful book for a holiday gift? You know, a story full of fuzzy-wuzzy hugs and morally upright teddy bears, a high-minded work of kid lit that is "good" for them?

Well, basically, what kid would?

"You might as well give kids socks," says Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, which reviews children's literature.

"Adults often like the idea of books that offer a nice, safe, restrictive world," agrees Deborah Stevenson, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "But that is antithetical to what books are for" -- to engage and open the imagination. For holiday joy, make sure the books are truly enjoyable. Kids crave books that will bring out the glint in their eyes, tickle their silly bones -- or just plain make them want to sing, swing and rock around the holiday clock. Some suggestions for different ages, stages and interests: (You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.)

Picture Books for the (Mostly Younger) Set

Trumpeting legend Gillespie finds his way to "Jazz Heaven" in Dizzy. hide caption

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Trumpeting legend Gillespie finds his way to "Jazz Heaven" in Dizzy.

A sandwich of rotten, moldy scraps, anyone? Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich serves up silliness. hide caption

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A sandwich of rotten, moldy scraps, anyone? Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich serves up silliness.

Baby gets to shake things up in Jane O'Connor's clever tale-within-a-tale, The Snow Globe Family. hide caption

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Baby gets to shake things up in Jane O'Connor's clever tale-within-a-tale, The Snow Globe Family.

Jazz It Up

This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt; pictures by R.G. Roth (Harcourt Children's Books, $16, ages 3 to 7)

"This jazz man, he plays one, he plays rhythm with his thumb, with a Snap! Snap! Snazzy-Snap! Give the man a hand, this jazz man scats with the band."

That's what "This Old Man" would sound like if an ensemble of nine jazz greats (including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington) joyfully jammed for the kids. Ehrhardt wittily revises the lyrics, while Roth deploys a pulsating palate of colors and collage to introduce each jazz man and his instrument. Readers are invited to snap their fingers and sing along.

Dizzy by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Sean Qualls (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books, $16.99, ages 4 to 8)

Blow, Dizzy, blow! Jazz immortal Dizzy Gillespie may not have been born with a trumpet in hand -- but with equal parts determination and innovation, he found his way to what Winter, in his energetic free-verse text, calls "Jazz Heaven." Vivid illustrations conjure his hardscrabble youth (his father's fists swinging at Dizzy as at a punching bag), the red-hot stream of Dizzy's jazz (fiery clouds smoke from his trumpet) and the nighttime atmosphere of the jazz clubs he headlined (shadows of indigo blue and grey engulf both players and audiences). Our advisers Sutton and Stevenson are both fans. Put on a Dizzy CD and start reading for a warm night of cool sounds.

Yuk It Up

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex (Harcourt Children's Books, $16, ages 5 to 10)

Well, maybe this isn't the most traditional comfort food. (Frankenstein's sandwich is compiled of the rotten, moldy scraps tossed by frightened townsfolk.) But Rex serves up a full menu of outlandish jokes and poems -- with absurd comic illustrations, from haunted horror house black-and-white to full-color fairy-tale scary -- about such misunderstood characters as Phantom of the Opera (who can't get "It's a Small World" out of his head), the Middlewich Witch-Watchers Club (a club which watches witches) and the Lunchsnack of Notre Dame. Need we say more?

G Is for One Gzonk! An Alpha-Number-Bet Book by Tony DiTerlizzi (Simon & Schuster, $16.95, ages 5 to 7)

DiTerlizzi's Dr.Seuss-like tome is as antic as the imaginary animals he invents to illustrate his self-described "silly dilly take on abc" -- from A (for the Angry Ack who "eats your dirty clothes./His favorite snack is stinky socks/with jam packed in the toes") to Z (for the Zanderiffic Zibble Zook).

Traditions and Untraditions

The Snow Globe Family by Jane O'Connor; illustrated by S. D. Schindler (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $16.99, ages 4 to 8)

Traditional comfort and joy don't have to be dull or treacly. In O'Connor's clever Victorian-era tale within a tale, Baby gets to shake things up -- literally -- whenever the snow-globe is in reach.

Merry Un-Christmas by Mike Reiss; illustrated by David Catrow (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 3 to 7)

Talk about a parallel universe: In Noelle's hometown, Christmas City, Texmas, every day is Christmas, which of course makes Un-Christmas Day the most special event on the calendar because it's just so... ordinary: When the man with a sack isn't Santa but the postman, when a TV dinner replaces a holiday feast and when kids get to go to school and hang out with their friends. Think of this amusing switcheroo, recommended by The Horn Book, as an antidote to the weary aftermath of too many holiday get-togethers.

Eight Wild Nights: A Family Hanukkah Tale by Brian P. Cleary; illustrated by David Udovic (Kar-Ben Publishing, $16.95, ages 4 to 8)

David Udovic pokes affectionate fun at Jewish traditions in this sitcom-style paean to family pandemonium. As the family gathers to light candles and eat latkes (spilling applesauce along the way), we meet Grandpa Dave (who specializes in teaching the kids blackjack and poker), energetic Aunt Rachel (leader of the annual off-key singalong) and other relatives who love tumult -- that's Yiddish for hoo-hah.

For Grade School Readers

To Dance, from a husband-wife team, tells the autobiographical tale of a young dancer. hide caption

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To Dance, from a husband-wife team, tells the autobiographical tale of a young dancer.

A stopwatch turns out to be more than just an heirloom in Rebecca Rupp's Journey to the Blue Moon. hide caption

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A stopwatch turns out to be more than just an heirloom in Rebecca Rupp's Journey to the Blue Moon.

Mysterious and Wacky Wins the Day

Journey to the Blue Moon: In Which Time Is Lost and Then Found Again by Rebecca Rupp (Candlewick Press, $15.99. Ages 10 and up)

Absent-minded Alex really does lose time, and not just metaphorically in this captivating time and space warp adventure. His grandfather's heirloom stopwatch -- which the frazzled Alex has managed to misplace -- turns out to be both personal talisman and magical solution to time's mysteries. The crisply written, deadpan funny charmer packs a suspenseful plot and a little wisdom, too, about how to seek and find one's way through time -- and life.

Epic Tales from Long Ago and Far Away

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea by Ann Sibley O'Brien (Charlesbridge Publishing, $14.95, ages 9 to 12).

"A nice blend of folklore, history and adventure," says Stevenson. Ann Sibley O'Brien transports readers to 15th-century Korea, where young Hong Kil Dong is denied his upper-class birthright because his mother is a commoner. Not one to accept injustice, he soon becomes a Robin Hood-like leader of an army of commoners who steal from the rich and give to the poor. Sibley's luminous graphic novel deploys brightly-colored watercolors to dramatize Korean court pageantry, rural poverty and luscious natural landscapes.

Lugalbanda: The Boy Who Got Caught Up in a War by Kathy Henderson; illustrated by Jane Ray (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 8 and up)

Lugalbanda's setting in ancient Iraq lends an eerily contemporary flavor to this 5,000-year-old folk tale about a young soldier prince who survives the war with the aid of magical creatures. The illustrations, filled with ancient Sumerian decorative motifs, give it the feel of a myth. The tale itself is filled with such archetypes as a prince and his seven brothers, a fierce flying creature, a heroic journey through the mountains -- and a happy ending, too.

Pop Goes the Sea Monster

Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart (Candlewick Press, $27.99, ages 5 and up)

With stunning craft, arresting-looking creatures from the prehistoric deep pop up and out at the turn of every page -- and lurk behind numerous mini-booklets that magically fold out. Extensive texts explain the marine biology and history of prehistoric mollusks, amphibians, sea lizards and reptiles whose names even a spelling-bee champ might muff – like the Liopleurodon, a reptile that "used its keen sense of smell rather than sight for locating its prey." The book has the same "paper engineer" as Mommy, Maurice Sendak's pop-up book. In both sales figures and guest stars, it's a monster.

Dancing Is in Your Stars

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel; art work by Mark Siegel (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $9.99, ages 8 to 14)

What's more joyful than doing what you love? Siegel was born with a passion for movement and rhythm, an enthusiasm that vibrantly moves through her husband's illustrations of her autobiographical tale of a young dancer, from practicing at the barre to facing her disappointments.

For Teen Readers

An adolescent identity crisis and in-your-face humor trump traditional notions of comfort and joy in Born to Rock. hide caption

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An adolescent identity crisis and in-your-face humor trump traditional notions of comfort and joy in Born to Rock.

The Gothic tale A Drowned Maiden's Hair features a vulnerable whistle-blowing orphan. hide caption

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The Gothic tale A Drowned Maiden's Hair features a vulnerable whistle-blowing orphan.

Kampung Boy offers a witty, stylized portrait of a young Muslim growing up in Malaysia's vanishing rural landscape. hide caption

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Kampung Boy offers a witty, stylized portrait of a young Muslim growing up in Malaysia's vanishing rural landscape.

The Joy of Edginess

Born to Rock by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, $15.99)

An adolescent identity crisis and in-your-face humor trump traditional notions of comfort and joy in Korman's fast-paced coming-of-age tale of a Harvard-bound young Republican turned punk-rock roadie. For full fun impact, this is best read with music blasting in the background. The only warning from Stevenson: "Beware of bad words."

Sold by Patricia McCormick (Hyperion, $15.99)

The time is now, the place an impoverished village in Nepal and the main character is 13-year-old Lakshmi, whose stepfather sells her to the sex-slave trade in India. Little solace is to be found in Lakshmi's nightmarish new world -- but there is hope, in the form of an American journalist who, in his attempt to rescue her, will help publicize the plight, and perhaps help change the fate of others trapped in the maw of child prostitution. Laskhmi's devastating tale makes you appreciate the comfort and joy of your own life, and may even inspire you to do something to change the world.

A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press, $15.99)

Schlitz's self-proclaimed melodrama is replete with an orphanage, a creepy household of spiritualist sisters and an 11-year-old orphaned heroine torn between gratitude to those seemingly sweet sisters who take her in and her sense of betrayal at being taken in -- as in conned -- by them and their phony seances. This Gothic tale, set in 1909, offers outwardly kind but inwardly corrupt villains, a vulnerable whistle-blowing orphan and, in Maude's empathy for another's suffering, a reason to believe in the power of human comfort.

The More Graphic the Better

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second Publishing, $16.95, young adult)

Gene Luen Yang's fantastical tale mixes the stories of a mythical super-powered monkey, a self-hating Chinese-American adolescent and "cousin Chin-Kee," an outrageously over-the-top embodiment of Asian racial stereotypes. All three plot lines meld to tell a story of transformation, self-knowledge and the importance, even comfort, of finally knowing -- not hiding -- who you are. Yang's illustrations effortlessly combine kung-fu action with a modern-day take on the Archie comics high-school caricatures. No wonder that for the first time in its 57-year history, the National Book Awards nominated a graphic novel -- this one -- as a finalist.

Kampung Boy by Lat (First Second Publishing, $16.95, young adult)

Deborah Stevenson drools over this autobiographical book: "Reading it is like really hanging out with this kid." That would be Lat, the kampong (or village) of the title. Lat's witty, stylized black and white drawings depict his boyish escapades and rites of passage (a circumcision at the age of nine) of a young Muslim growing up in Malaysia's vanishing rural landscape. By book's end, the expanding tin mines have already begun to erode community life. When Lat is sent to boarding school, he bids farewell not just to his family, but to a way of life that will soon be no more. Lat's charming, playful book is a multicultural gift of memory.

And a Shaggy Dog Story for the Pit-Bull in All of Us

Chowder by Peter Brown (Little, Brown, $15.99, ages 4 to 8)

This may well be one of those children's books that's really for Mom and Dad -- but who says you can't have fun, too? Chowder is a toilet-trained bulldog who surfs the Internet and overachieves in everything from digging up bones (he thinks he's an archaeologist) to making a mess in the kitchen. Brown's satire of upscale, over-indulgent dog owners (or, um, parents?) is a quirky reminder of who's really boss in any family.

Books Featured In This Story