Gift Guide 2003

















Amazing Vehicles Foldout Book
Animals Foldout Book
by Christiane Gunzi and James Harrison
Published by Silver Dolphin
6 pages, 2002

It's a book. It's a wall chart. It's two, two, two things in one. You and your children will have to be the ultimate judge of how well this blend of formats works but, in concept and execution, it's a pretty fun idea. On the shelf, it looks like a largish children's book. Open it out and all of the books "pages" are attached to each other: the entire thing folds out in a format obviously intended more for wall viewing than book reading. Both versions mentioned here -- Amazing Vehicles and Animals are full of the same type of simple drawings and explanations you've probably seen in other books. ("The Arizona cotton rat: This rodent lives on the dry grasslands of California, Arizona, and Mexico. Cotton rats feed on small insects, plants, crabs," and so on.) Still, it's an interesting idea that would please the small child more excited by looking at things than reading.

Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas
by Elise Primavera
Published by Harcourt
40 pages, 2002

While much has been written and conjectured about Santa Claus, nothing much is said about his family. Does he, for instance, have siblings? What did his parents do? Does he have a favorite uncle? Or an aunt? Author/illustrator Elise Primavera has been answering some of these questions with her bestselling series featuring Auntie Claus. In Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas we meet a doubting Thomas: young Christopher Kringle (the younger brother of Sophie, who starred in Primavera's first book, Auntie Claus.) As it turns out, his Auntie Claus is Santa Claus' older sister. But, in this book, what Chris has to discover is that things aren't always what they seem and that keys don't always open doors. Primavera manages to pack a lot of story into 40 pages, but the real stars here are her luminous illustrations. Like its predecessor, Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas seem destined to become seasonal classics.

Big Noisy Trucks and Diggers
Big Trucks and Diggers Nesting Blocks

Drawing Trucks and Diggers
Big Farm Machines

Published by Chronicle Books
various lengths, 2001 & 2002

The weirdest thing about this foursome of Caterpillar® sponsored or inspired book-type things is that, as far as we can see, they aren't available in a gift set. And they should be. These four things go together like marmite and toast. The odd one out might be Big Farm Machines, a 24-page boardbook designed, I guess, to entrance truly little people with rough hands. Big Noisy Trucks and Diggers is also a boardbook, but in a slightly larger format and with a panel of sound buttons that the text of the book cues young readers to use: the sounds include the ignition, a horn, excavation, backing up and digging. The 30-page Drawing Trucks and Diggers gives kids the chance to trace different big Caterpillar vehicles with 10 stencils. Spiral bound, this book is meant to take the type of interaction that repeated stenciling and reading that little hands will give out. Finally, Big Trucks and Diggers Nesting Blocks isn't a book at all. Intended for children aged six months to three years, 10 sturdy, shiny cardboard boxes nest inside the yellow-handled carrying box. Each box is numbered on one side, another side features pieces of a building -- put them together to build a cardboard skyscraper -- another side sports illustrations of safety equipment and the fourth illustrations of a Caterpillar vehicle and an explanation of what it does ("Packs Down," "Rolls Flat" and so on.). On the top is a photo of the same vehicle and its proper name ("Soil Compactor," "Skid Steer," etc.).

Buzz Off I'm Busy
Home Sweet Home
When I'm Big

illustrated by Bill Bolton
Published by Silver Dolphin
16 pages, 2002

The three books that make up the Busy Bügz pop-up books series are enchanting in the extreme. The stories are sweet and charming -- non-offensive -- but, in this case, the art really is the thing. Bill Bolton's bugs (bügz?) would be a delight even if the pop-ups weren't so superlative. But they are. Wings flap, tentacles quiver, heads nod and flowers bloom. I can't imagine children not being entranced: the adults I've shown these books to certainly were.

Chicken Soup by Heart
by Esther Hershenhorn
illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
32 pages, 2002

When I first heard the title of this book, I assumed it was the latest addition to that ubiquitous Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But Oy-oy-oy! Was I ever wrong! Chicken Soup by Heart is the tale of little Rudie Dinkins, whose babysitter, Mrs. Gittel, comes down with a horrible cold one Sunday. This means she won't be able to baby-sit him on Monday. Suddenly Rudie has some Very Big Worries, and he tries to figure out what he can do to help Mrs. Gittel get better. The story begins, "Here it is from start to finish: how such a nice boychik saved the Chicken Soup Queen." How can you resist an opening line like that? By the end of the book Mrs. Gittel is well again, thanks to her boychik and some Rudie Dinkins Surprises. And what happens along the way is, as Mrs. Gittel would say, "such a nice story." With Chicken Soup by Heart, Esther Hershenhorn has crafted a warm and loving tale of how two people can help one another and learn from each other, even if they are separated by generations. Reading this book brought back memories of some of my own special baby-sitters, and how they made me feel when I was with them. Rosanne Litzinger's illustrations gently reinforce that aura of love and security, and she sneaks in some sweet surprises herself. My three-year-old boychik is bound to ask for this book again and again, and when he does, I won't say "Oy!" even once -- because it's such a nice story. -- Pamela C. Patterson

Christmas With Anne and Other Holiday Stories
by L.M. Montgomery
Published by McClelland & Stewart
214 pages, 2002

It's true: there's something essentially Christmassy about the work of Lucy Maud Montgomery, even when the stories are set in spring or summer. But holiday-specific stories? Could things get any cozier? For those that love Anne of Green Gables. For those that love Lucy Maud. For those that love the thought of a bittersweet Anne of Green Gables Christmas -- cry your way to happiness the Lucy Maud way.

by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins
164 pages, 2002

From the deliciously twisted mind of Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Neverwhere) comes Coraline, the author's first book for young readers. While the publisher recommends this book for nine to 12-year-olds, it might be a little too frightening -- though it's never graphic -- for younger children and it's a fun and breezy read for adults. The story centers on the title character: Coraline, who moves with her parents to a part of a big, old house in the country. Most of the other parts of the house are lived in by other tenants, except for one that seems to have been bricked up. After some exploration, Coraline finds a way to the other side. And it's pretty scary over there.

I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem
by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell
Published by HarperCollins
32 pages, 2002

Following up on the success of 2000's bestselling Where Do Balloons Go? which spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Jamie Lee Curtis (yes, that Jamie Lee Curtis) and illustrator Laura Cornell team up again for a mondo self-esteem tale, I'm Gonna Like Me. And, in truth, it's a cheery little book. Cornell's illustrations are loose, colorful and somehow as joyous as Curtis' cheery text. The storyline follows two narrators -- a girl and a boy -- through a day of happy and not so happy things, with the underlying chant of liking yourself: "I'm gonna like me when I don't run so fast. Then they pick teams and I'm chosen last." And, on the happy side: "I'm gonna like me when I'm called on to stand. I know all my letters like the back of my hand." The message, of course: Like yourself no matter what. It's a pretty happy book.

Let's Go Home: The Wonderful Things About a House
by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
32 pages, 2002

They say home is where the heart is, but it's where a lot of other stuff is too: cats and dogs lounging on the front porch, Christmas lights wound around the banisters at holiday time, and if you're lucky, a fireplace in the living room. (Hmmm, maybe home is where the hearth is.) But be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. In Let's Go Home: The Wonderful Things About a House, Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant casts her observant eye on the things that make a house a home. Here's one of my favorite passages: "Believe it or not, a bathroom can be the most interesting room in a house. In a bathroom you can find out what people like to read or how they like to smell or whether or not their teeth are real." Of course, since this is a children's book, Rylant doesn't advise her young readers to snoop in the medicine cabinet -- they'll learn that soon enough on their own -- but there's no harm in noticing what might be on the counter next to the sink, right? And as the author notes, "You can always tell if a child lives in a house by checking beside the tub. That's where you'll find the wind-up boats and the yellow ducky and the sponge that looks like a dinosaur." Wendy Anderson Halperin's delightfully detailed illustrations are the perfect complement to the author's narrative, and her eye for design and layout is apparent on every page. This is one book you'll want to take home for the holidays. -- Pamela C. Patterson

The Losers' Club
by John Lekich
Published by Annick Press
247 pages, 2002

"They say misery loves company, which is why we decided to form the Losers' Club in grade nine last year." Award-winning writer John Lekich's debut novel tells the story of Alex Sherwood, a teenager who'd love to fit in at his high school, but whose cerebral palsy means he has to walk with crutches. It's not a somber novel, however, and the narrator's health challenges are merely a fact of his character, not one the plot hinges on. Here's the hinge: no matter what, most teenagers feel outside of the center of things most times. This is a book they'll identify with.

Mad Professor: Concoct Extremely Weird Science Projects
by Mark Frauenfelder
Published by Chronicle Books
80 pages, 2002

Right off the hop you know that Mad Professor is not the kind of book that should sit safely on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. Spiral bound with laminated pages, this happy little book is designed to resist all kinds of goo. It is also designed for the inquisitive child (perhaps in all of us) and the budding McGyver. Why? 'Cause from basic household items -- plus a few you may have to go to your local hardware store to get -- you can make anything from simple Goon Goo to a Whipmobile to a Vortex Cannon (don't worry mom and dad, it's not as destructive as it sounds). All of the recipes and instructions are based on basic scientific principles. So, as your progeny go about building an Old Tyme Robot or take the time to create a Shatterproof Egg, they are also inadvertently learning valuable lessons about chemistry and physics. Each project is set up like a recipe in a cookbook with an ingredients list, instructions, an explanation on how and why the project works and the suggestion that a grown-up should help should there be sharp objects involved. If only they made cookbooks this durable.

My Christmas Album
by Richard and Candice Elton
designed and illustrated by Fran Lee
Published by Gibbs Smith
28 pages, 2002

Though it's packaged and sold like a book, My Christmas Album is more like an activity set. The book portion is an album, just as the title suggests. With a couple of pages "All About Me" and "My Favorite Things." The balance of the pages are bordered and contain instructions like, "Take a picture of a family member by the Christmas tree," "Take a picture of something you made," and so on. A small section on "Picture-Taking Basics" prepares you for the rest of the package: a ready-to-go reusable flash camera (complete with the Gibbs Smith logo) and a glue stick help kids to complete the project. Turn them lose, develop the film and your kids can use this kit to create a happy heirloom of this Christmas.

Origami Monsters
by Isamu Asahi
Published by Tuttle
32 pages 2002

You say the closest you've come to doing origami is when you try to put the Saturday newspaper sections back in order? Well, if you and your kids can fold a square piece of paper diagonally and match the corners with some amount of accuracy, then you are well on your way to creating some of the wacky folded paper faces in Isamu Asahi's Origami Monsters. With names like Moon Pup or the Hatted Tetra Garper you know that these are not going to be your run-of-the-mill mugs. Each of the 28 paper sculptures is illustrated by a simple and easy-to-follow fold guide along with paper color suggestions. With no cutting or gluing these deceptively intricate yet easy-to-make projects will have the kids -- and maybe even mom and dad -- busy for hours of safe fun.

by Shelley Peterson
Published by Key Porter Books
262 pages, 2002

There is little that captures most girl's imagination like a good, old-fashioned horse story, which is why there's such a steady stream of books featuring both of those things: girls and horses. Shelley Peterson's series featuring Abby Malone -- Dancer and Abby Malone -- has struck a chord with her readers: both of those previous books did very well. Stragestruck is Peterson's strongest work to date. Not only has she gained experience as a writer, but the story line involves two things close to this author's heart: horses and the world of the theater -- in addition to being a writer, a horsewoman and a mom, Peterson is a professional actress.


Stravaganza: City of Masks
by Mary Hoffman
Published by Bloomsbury
345 pages, 2002

Though Diana Gabaldon may have given the "time-slip" novel its place on the charts, it's too potent a device to be left entirely alone. In Stravaganza: City of Masks, Mary Hoffman brings us the story of Lucien, gravely ill in a hospital in present-day England. His father gives him a notebook to write in and Lucien finds himself transported -- or, rather, "stravagated" -- to Talia, a world very much like 16th century Italy, right down to the boot and the Venetian canals. City of Masks is intended to be the first in the Stravaganza trilogy, a feat that Hoffman has the pedigree to pull off: she is the creator of the Amazing Grace series of books for young readers. Those that love Amazing Grace should be given a word of caution, however: the Stravaganza series is clearly intended for a more sophisticated -- and slightly older -- reading group. Not everything in City of Masks is sweetness and light and some of it is really quite sad. These elements of reality in such a fantastical setting give City of Masks an edge that many young readers will respond to. But not too young: perhaps mature 10-year-olds and up.

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
illustrated by Michael Foreman
Published by Raincoast Books
240 pages, 2002

"The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms." The text of The Wind and the Willows, published by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, has the feeling of a well-worn pebble. Charmingly familiar, a time-proven story that invites us to share it with our own offspring. Though many print versions are available, this latest is one of the few that does justice to the grand old tale. Michael Foreman is thought to be one of the world's leading illustrators of children's books. His graceful watercolors complete what is destined to be an heirloom version of Kenneth Grahame's classic tale.