Good Books to Give Kids This Christmas

Dana-tested, Stabenow-approved, all guaranteed good reads as well as good read-alouders. I’ve been known to read at least parts of them out loud when I’m alone in the room myself.

gorillaFor the toddlers, try Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla. At the end of the day the zookeeper goes home, and he doesn’t go home alone. The illustrations are delightful, I’m smiling now just thinking about the mouse with the banana on a string. See also Where Are You Going, Manyoni?, Mama, Do You Love Me?, and I Want My Hat Back.

paperbagFor storybooks for beginning readers, my personal favorite is Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. (Hey, dragon!)
(Too soon to say if I’m thrilled about this.)

henryI also love D.B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, wherein Henry David Thoreau morphs into a bear (there are five books in the Henry series now). Also the The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters by Janet & Allan Ahlberg, the tale of a postman on his bicycle delivering the mail to the occupants of an enchanted forest, but this is mail you get to take out of its envelopes (and check out the postmarks and the stamps) like you’d just taken it out of your own mailbox.

harrisFor middle schoolers, Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen will make them laugh (just make sure they don’t try any of that at home), Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness will make them cry, and E.L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday will make them want to have tea on Saturday afternoons.

hunger-gamesEveryone knows the story of Katniss Everdeen now, but new readers are growing up as we speak. Read the books with them–you’ll be astonished by how much more they give you than the films do of this tale of a post-apocalyptic America where there is very little bread and only one–and fatal–circus. See also The Smell of Other People’s Houses and Property of the State.

lions-pawAnd for those of you poor deprived readers who have never come across this book before, I am delighted, nay, ecstatic to announce the return to print of The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, including the original illustrations by Ralph Ray. It’s about damn time. In World War II Florida, Penny and Nick run away from the orphanage and hide out on the sloop Hard-a-Lee, owned by sixteen-year old Ben, whose father is missing in the South Pacific. Uncle Pete is going to sell the Hard-a-Lee, but instead Ben, Penny and Nick light out for the territory, and that’s just the beginning of their adventures.

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No Bread and One Circus

This Friday the film based on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games opens, and we can only hope it is even half as good as the book. My review on Goodreads [SPOILER ALERT]:

This is a horrifyingly good book, so much so that I had to put it down twice and walk away before I could continue for fear of what would happen next. In a dystopian future US, there is no bread and only one circus, the Hunger Games, in which 24 “tributes” (forced volunteers) duel to the death on camera with the whole world watching whether they want to or not.

The narrator is a 16-year old girl, Katniss, the sole support of her mother and 10-year old sister back home. Her sister is chosen in the reaping and Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Games. The plot is like American Idol crossed with Survivor, only in this case children are killing children as a national spectator sport. By the last page you know what it was like at the Coliseum, from both the cheap seats and the floor of the arena. A riveting read.

And this is what I wrote about the third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay:

This is what Collins means these books to be about, right here

Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences…The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.

It sure doesn’t. These three books work on several levels. First and foremost, they’re a riveting read, an action/adventure tale that sweeps you along from first page to last. Katniss is a wonderful character, smart, strong, stubborn, taught by a hard life to have exactly the right skills she needs to survive the Games. Collins made an inspired choice to let Katniss tell her own story in first person present tense, which lends just that much more verisimilitude and immediacy to every event, without any assurance that anyone, Katniss included, is going to survive those events. You’re on the edge of your seat for the whole narrative. Taken simply as pure, breathless entertainment, these books totally rock.

Second, not only does Katniss kick serious ass, she instinctively says and does the right thing when everything is on the line. She’s a role model I’d be happy for any girl to aspire to. Or any woman, for that matter. I love Harry Potter, I do, but it’s always bugged me, just a little, that the books weren’t about Hermione. I know, I know, teachers and librarians say you can’t get boys to read books about girls, but let me tell you, I’ve made grown men read these books and they can’t put them down. So maybe the Hunger Games books are the beginning of a paradigm shift in reading habits. I so hope so.

Thirdly, Collins has a message. She puts these randomly selected kids into an arena to kill each other on a homicidal version of American Idol, all to serve as an annual object lesson that furthers the political stranglehold of the Capitol on the twelve Districts. By not flinching away from just how brutal those deaths are, she puts us personally on the battlefield. I can still see that spear going through Rue. Man, I can hear it.

How many Rues does the human race sacrifice before we figure out how to live with each other? I think Peeta was onto something, Katniss says, about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because really, I think Collins is saying, what is the alternative? Children dying.

The best science fiction is more than just a good story, and these books are an exemplar of the “if this goes on” trope. Collins is holding up a mirror and showing us exactly who we are.

I really like the ending, too, and not just because I was a Peeta girl from The Hunger Games on. Again, Katniss did the right thing like she always does and took down the right person. Her way back from everything that has happened to her is long and filled with pain and grief. This isn’t a happily ever after, and it shouldn’t be.

But, boy, it is a good read.

Coffee Table Books for December 14

These are all (I hope) of the books mentioned on the air during Coffee Table this morning. For Christmas gifts for friends and family, as follows:

Tom likes Alcohol Can be a Gas by David Blume.

Amy likes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Samantha loves her new cookbook, Fish Without a Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore.

Pam likes Diapering the Devil by Jay Hammond (So do I. If you want to know how and why you get a PFD every October, start here).

Mark likes Simple Food for the Good Life by Helen Nearing and is also reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the one about the Great Game, aka covert ops between Russia and China in the late 1800’s.

Mike made Bill Moyers’ The Conversation Continues sound like a must-read, and the perfect bedside book.

Caroline recommends local author Dottie Cline’s children’s book, Raven Paints the Birds, and the coffee table book Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them by Sharon Beals, which she says is gorgeously photographed. I went and looked, and she’s not lying.

photo by Sharon Beals

Trish likes Mary H. Perry’s Onward Crispy Shoulders, and I must say she had me at the title.

Mike likes Alaska fiction, in this case Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kanter and 2182 Kilohertz by David Masiel.

Al recommends Charles Brower’s autobiography, Fifty Years Below Zero, another great title.

Dave likes John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar.

Host Aaron is reading The Hunger Games, and both he and engineer Terry read Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander at my instigation (she said proudly) and loved it.

More Terry picks:
A Voice in the Box, the autobiography of Bob Edwards, a voice you will recognize if you’re a long-time listener to NPR.
The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, a departure Terry says from King’s usual weird scary stuff.
A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester (big thumbs up from me here, too).
Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and
The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield, which Terry says he got from the list of Alaska history books at the end of Though Not Dead. Yay, somebody read it!

My recommendations:

The Chrysalids by John Brunner. Classic dystopian if-this-goes-on science fiction. Substitute global warming for a nuclear holocaust and it reads as prescient today as it did sixty years ago, and it has a couple of strong female characters that could be taken as models for Katniss Everdeen.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. A chief of police in rural France deals with wine, cheese, drug dealers and Nazis. A marvelously realized setting, terrific characters, an interesting plot that doesn’t cheat, and my new favorite crime fiction series.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with murder thrown in. Turns out Mr. Darcy was James’ model for Adam Dalgleish.

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens. Irascible author and essayist gives Tom Paine’s manifesto a biography. Anything either guy writes is pure gold, Hitchen’s historical context is matchless, and it’s only 133 pages long.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Vividly detailed recreation of a woman, a place, and a time. I’d travel in time back to her Alexandria, so long as I’d had all my shots.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. Harvard government professor explores the answers to questions like “What wounds deserve the Purple Heart?’ and “Did those A.I.G. executives deserve their bonuses?” Where headlines and philosophy meet. This would make a great book club book. I may choose it for mine.

Inside the Sky by William Langiewiesche. A collection of essays on flight and flying. Topics include what’s going on inside the tower, meteorology, storm flying (on purpose!), and the last chapter is a mesmerizing examination of the Valujet crash in Florida. The perfect gift for the pilot in your life, and let’s face it, what Alaskan doesn’t have at least one of those?

Oh, and a recommendation I made last year for Aaron’s mom: Great Maria by Cecelia Holland. A strong woman in medieval Italy goes after what she wants and gets it. Aaron’s mom, if your son forgets for the second year in a row, buy it for yourself, it’s a great read.