There are lots of signs that the holidays are around the corner: the radio is blaring Christmas tunes non-stop, every store is filled up with holiday treats, decorations, and gifts, and my inbox is filled with requests about what book to buy their child or niece or grandson as a gift.
So many of us want to buy books for the children in our lives – we want them to love books, share our favorite titles from our childhood, and give them something that won’t break or wear out in a few weeks.
But we also know that a book can be a tricky gift. What’s the right reading level? What will they think is fun instead of a book that you get a perfunctory thank-you card for, but you know they never actually read a page?
Fortunately, as a huge reader myself, a mom to three kids and a former librarian that served 800 elementary school students, I’ve learned a little about what books stay pristine on the shelves and what books end up beloved and read over and over again.
Here are my picks for whatever ages you’re shopping for:
All-time favorite board book for baby
Piggies by Audrey Wood and Don Wood. This husband and wife team write the BEST books (you probably already know The Napping House, which is their most famous book). Piggies is bright yellow and on each page is a set of chubby child hands with ten totally unique piggies on each finger. The details are mind-boggling and you’ll never get tired of the sweet rhyme and the gorgeous pictures.
All-time favorite picture book for preschoolers
Picking one single picture book is like asking me to choose a favorite child – it’s pretty much impossible. But Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld has been one of my very favorites for some eight years now, and my girls are equally enamored with it. Some of our books get read a lot for a while and then sit on the shelf untouched for months or years, but this one never falls out of the rotation.
Best beginning reader book/author for kindergartners
Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems. There’s just almost no other answer. These books have a limited amount of text, help teach expressive reading, and are just so fun and clever that I don’t mind reading them over and over again to my girls, and my daughter is happy to read them aloud to her little sister many times in a row. (If you love animal duos that are slightly absurd, I’d also strongly recommend George and Martha and Frog and Toad).
Best first series to read together
You can’t go wrong with Mercy Watson, a pig who lives with a jovial older couple and loves hot buttered toast. The illustrations are bright and funny and Mercy’s antics are just too much. They’re exactly the right length, too, for children who are beginning to venture into chapter books. The first six books come in a boxed set and make a perfect (inexpensive!) gift.
Best first series for child to read on their own
Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall. This was the first chapter book my daughter read by herself and since then, she’d read or listened to the entire series and loved them all. There are ten books in this delightful and fun series about two neighbor girls who originally don’t get along, but quickly discover that their two personalities – one independent thinker and one accidental trouble-maker – make for a great duo with plenty of adventures for boys and girls alike.
Best book or series for 1st – 3rd graders
My daughter cried when she finished every Boxcar Children book and my nephew refused to read anything else until he’d completed the series. I grew up reading these and was delighted to see how well they’ve stood the test of time. Plus, I really appreciate a series that shows siblings who are all different but still love each other and work together.
Best book or series for 4th – 5th graders
When I was a first-year librarian, my fourth and fifth grader classes had obviously started to outgrow their interest in books and I was so disappointed to see 50% or more of the class leave each week without a book checked out. I started spending the last 10 minutes of each visit reading aloud to them, starting with Swindle and from then, on I couldn’t keep copies of this (or the sequels) on the shelf. I love Swindle by Gordon Korman not only because it’s a great heist story, but also because it reminds me that with the right book, any kid can love reading.
Best book or series for middle-school aged-kids
You probably know Suzanne Collin’s name because of her wildly-successful Hunger Games trilogy, but before Katniss took the world by storm, she wrote a phenomenal middle-grade fantasy series called Gregor the Overlander. These five books follow Gregor and his accidental fall through the grate in his apartment building’s laundry room floor which transports him into the Underland. This world is on the brink of war and Gregor’s arrival has been prophesied. Gregor is willing to help only because he thinks it might help him discover the whereabouts of his father who has mysteriously disappeared years earlier. The audio versions are also terrific, so if you have a reluctant reader, try going this way instead.
Best book or series for high schoolers
Someone recommended this trilogy to me saying, “if you’re missing Harry Potter, try The Burning Sky” and that was a great suggestion. The Elemental trilogy has lots of the same mystery, magic, and fantasy that made Harry Potter so hugely popular. And the third book just came out a few weeks ago, so no need to wait around to read them all in one sitting.
Best series to read together as a family
This summer, our family drove from North Carolina to Southern California, which meant we clocked hours and hours of time in the car. There was plenty of screen time, but the highlight of the drive was listening to several of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books together. After a few chapters, my husband commented, “She is such a GREAT writer.” My girls loved listening to it, but the adults in the car enjoyed it just as much. Whether you’re the little sister who gets left out, the older sibling dealing with a pesky little sister or brother, or a parent trying to keep everything going smoothly at home and work, there’s something for everyone in these enduring books. (Side Note: Ramona the Pest is probably the most well-known, but it’s my least favorite; I prefer the ones where Ramona is a little older and less annoying).
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