Gift books for children seem to get better and better with each new holiday season. When authors, artists and publishers show this much care for budding young readers and their nurturing parents, the hopeful promises of the season seem all the more achievable.
The Goodnight Book for Moms and Little Ones, edited by Alice Wong and Lena Tabori, offers a surprising amount of material perfect for easing the often-difficult transition from day to night. The chubby little treasure is stuffed with “stories to read, poetry to inspire, activities to delight, songs to sing, recipes to soothe and [multicultural] prayers to calm.” Brief excerpts pluck favorite sleepy moments from classics like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Charlotte’s Web, and are interspersed with short tales from Greek mythology, the Brothers Grimm, Native American traditions and other sources. Poets represented include Robert Louis Stevenson, Shel Silverstein, Christina Rossetti and e.e. cummings, and the lullabies are culled from the canon, now extending generously to John Lennon and Paul Simon.
As the title promises, Mom also gets a bit of attention, with relaxation techniques, parenting tips and neat projects (like scented sachets and dream-journaling). The crisply organized table of contents is a necessity with so much on offer, but the book lends itself to soporifically random—call it “sandman”—sampling, thanks to all the classic illustrations on these sleepy, color-soaked pages.
ANIMALS ON PARADE
British pop-up master Robert Crowther launched his career more than 30 years ago with The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book, and this creative wonder is now available in a new edition. Crowther makes kids work a bit to find the animal whose name begins with each letter, but the payoff is worth it. Big, black lowercase letters march across white pages looking quite severe until little hands figure out how to slide, flip, pull or push the tab to release a colorful critter. An ape swings beneath the “a,” a frog leaps the curve of an “f,” a koala slides down the leg of a “k,” and an owl blinks inside the “o.” The names of the animals are revealed as well, so that even the youngest operator can see the spelling. Both upper- and lower-cases of the letters appear at the top of each page for reference and comparison, each pair designed with the colors and patterns of its assigned animal.
Crowther’s now-classic pop-up is even more fun when paired with its companion volume, The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Numbers Book. Like his abecediary, the counting book is irresistible. Stark numerals (with the name spelled above) hide adorable animals in just the right number: one spider, two swans, three caterpillars, four snails and so on, but all squeezed behind or inside the actual numeral, ready to pop, uncoil, scoot or slide. And he doesn’t stop at 20; Crowther crams in enough critters to make it by tens all the way to 100. All animals are named, whether ordinary or exotic, teaching animal identification and spelling along with number literacy.
WHEN LIFE GIVES US LEMONS . . .
“A torn piece of paper is just the beginning,” Barney Saltzberg assures young readers in Beautiful Oops!, a happy little book that celebrates the potential power of mistakes. Turn the page, and the other side of that torn paper is now the goofy grin of an alligator. Same with a stain, a bent corner, a scrap, a spill: All are playfully transformed into something imaginative and unexpected—a wide-mouthed frog, a penguin’s head, a collage, a pig in a car. Using ingenious pops-ups, flaps, overlays, holes and splashy illustrations, Beautiful Oops! shows us that anyone can turn blunder into wonder. This art lesson, if taken to heart, can be a valuable life lesson, too. In fact it may be the perfect chance to nip perfectionism in the bud and cultivate a lifelong tendency to be creative and react to screw-ups with flexibility. Maybe kids really can learn to learn from mistakes. Beautiful Oops! is for ages three and up, which means everyone old enough to read books instead of eat them (which would be a real mistake, by the way) has the chance to get in on the magic.
I’m a Scientist: Kitchen, by Lisa Burke, looks like the best kind of children’s cookbook: It has clear, simple graphics, big color photographs, easy instructions and an illustrated materials list so that even nonreaders can collect supplies, but its real goal is to help young children (ages four to eight) cook up a healthy love of science. Each two-page spread contains one kitchen-based experiment that calls for stuff already on hand, like pantry items, toys or household bits and pieces. For example, kids explore density by layering oil, syrup and water into a jar and adding small objects to see if they sink or float. Simple questions act as prompts to encourage observation and curiosity. At the right of every spread is a big flap covering scientific conclusions and follow-up ideas for kids curious enough to want more. Other experiments look at static electricity, magnets, ice and more, but always in the easiest and most fun ways. A colloid, for example, is a big new word, but when put into action as Gobbledy Goo (cornstarch suspended in colored water), the concept is fabulously weird and memorable.
BRICK BY BRICK
David Macaulay, award-winning author and artist of The Way Things Work and many more must-have books, offers a new title that combines three of his most famous and beloved works in Built to Last. The impetus behind the original editions of Castle, Cathedral and Mosque was “not only to show why and how some of the world’s best-known buildings were designed and constructed, but to connect the bricks and mortar with the vision and courage of the builders,” Macaulay writes. He did this with exquisitely detailed renderings of every phase of building and every job required, from mixing mortar to assembling stained-glass windows, plus maps, plans, illustrations, background information and stories—historical fiction, really—that made history feel immediate and real. And he does it even better in Built to Last.
All the material—illustrations and information—has been completely revised by the author and is now in full color, a process that took him far longer than anticipated. Although aimed at children ages nine to 12, Macaulay’s new collection will appeal to anyone interested in architecture, history or just the way things work.
TELLING THE TALE
What could be better than hearing a child read a story except, perhaps, hearing a child tell a story? But storytelling is an art, isn’t it, best left to those with the training and the talent? Not according to Storyworld: Create-a-Story Kit, by John and Caitlin Matthews, which sets out to prove that any reader can be a storyteller. Storyworld is a book-like box containing 40 story cards and a short guide. Each elaborately illustrated card “features people, creatures, places and special objects” based on age-old folktale traditions that are ready to mix and match in any way the teller wishes. Readers are instructed to “pick a handful of cards, and use their pictures and words as inspiration to tell a new story every time the box is opened.” There is no right or wrong way to craft a story with this kit. The storytelling book offers ideas for creating stories, games to play with the cards, suggestions for further inspiration and ways to use Storyworld alone, with a friend or even with parents. This “ingenious toolkit for the mind” is designed for ages 9 to 12.
A new toolkit of another sort awaits Star Wars fans. Star Wars Millennium Falcon: A 3-D Owner’s Guide, by Ryder Windham, illustrated by Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff, is a spectacular oversized board book with a “pilot’s view” of the most famous ship from that galaxy far, far away. Every page highlights a particular system or area (propulsion, life support, crew quarters, armaments, etc.) in a cool cut-away format, which exposes only that particular area. As the pages are turned, the resulting overlay gradually builds to form the entire ship. Meanwhile, abundant specs and factoids will please the most mechanically obsessed devotee, and quotes from Han Solo and Lando Calrissian add a little dash of humor and film trivia. The whole thing is presented as if it were an actual owner’s manual, and pilots are advised to read thoroughly before taking the Falcon out for a spin.
Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Best-Kept Secrets, by John Farndon, dares readers ages 10 and up to risk exposure to a world of “weird history, strange science, mysterious places, random happenings, freaky facts of nature” and other oddities. The range and amount of information is staggering (as is the nature of some of it), and each subject is presented on a double-page spread with loads of visual variety and catchy graphics. A sample of topics culled from the index includes the Fibonacci sequence, iris recognition, haunted places, bar codes, spontaneous combustion, the curse of Tutankhamun, dark matter, UFOs and Elvis. Some of this stuff can pass as cultural literacy, some is just for fun, but all is supposedly true. Not to open Do Not Open is not, realistically, an option, but where to open is—your enthralled child could start right at the beginning, or she might choose to follow the enticing leads in the cross-references at the bottom of nearly every spread. “From DNA to the CIA, hackers to hoaxes, time travel to telepathy: it’s all in here.”