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Our Picks for Great Gift Books 2014

*Originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

It's no secret that NoveList staff are always talking and trading books -- whether asking for a great audiobook for a car trip or recommending books for a family beach trip storytime. Every year, it's become a tradition for the juvenile team (aka "Juvenile Brain Trust") to put together a list of books that would make ideal gifts. Here's this year's gift list, just for you. 


Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

by Patricia Hruby Powell; illustrated by Christian Robinson

This stylish and unusual picture book biography is a fitting tribute to the legendary entertainer. Patricia Hruby Powell's jazzy free verse and well-documented research combine with Christian Robinson's sprightly illustrations and mouthwatering color palette to make Josephine a picture book that would be equally at home in the classroom or on the coffee table. I love how Baker's self-confidence comes through -- she's a great example for hammy kids who are determined to head for stardom. Give this one to young YouTubers building their brands, fans of the Roaring Twenties and folks who like to combine glamour with social justice.--Autumn Winters, Juvenile Content Specialist

The Christmas Rat

by Avi

Each year, one of my favorite traditions is to re-read Avi's shockingly bleak and surprisingly disturbing holiday story, The Christmas Rat

Eric's Christmas vacation has turned out to be quite boring since all his friends are either sick or out of town and his parents are working overtime.  However, everything changes once Anje Gabrail, an exterminator, comes to Eric's apartment and enlists his help in catching and killing a rat living in the basement.  As the hunt becomes more intense, Eric decides he wants to save the rat, despite Anje's menacing threats.  While they read this suspenseful, fast-paced, and unsettling Christmas tale, older children and young teen readers will be on the edge of their seats, uncertain whether Anje is still hunting the rat or has begun to hunt both the rat and Eric.  The novel's end contains a powerful and uplifting message as well as some interesting information about the Angel Gabriel and a puzzle that older children may enjoy solving using clues given throughout the story. 

Though I have read it every year since I received the novel from my parents while I was in elementary school, the twist ending to this thrilling tale never ceases to surprise me and Avi's masterful storytelling brings me more holiday cheer and spirit than any other Christmas story.      

A perfect short novel to read during holiday vacation, The Christmas Rat would make an excellent gift for children and teens who enjoy realistic suspense, mysteries, or even scary stories, as well as for readers interested in reading an offbeat, original, and slightly chilling Christmas story.--Jennie Minor, Cataloger


The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

by Jen Bryant; illustrated by Melissa Sweet

How apt that the word thesaurus means "treasure house" in Greek.  The Right Word, Jen Bryant's fascinating and visually beautiful picture book biography, shares the life of Peter Mark Roget -- from his early need to make sense of his world coupled with his later fascination for a variety of subjects, including finding the right word. I was delighted to learn that he began keeping lists of words as a young boy since I was similarly captivated with words as a youngster.  Thanks to his feeling that everyone should have access to the best word, his Roget's Thesaurus was published in 1852 and not only became an immediate best-seller, it's never gone out of print! Melissa Sweet's irrepressible artwork will entice readers to pore over this lovely book again and again, making this the perfect gift for word lovers of all ages. --Kathy Stewart, Juvenile Editor/Bibliographer


Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

by Jim Ottaviani; illustrated by Maris Wicks

Since childhood I have had a love for anything monkey, and as I grew up, my interest evolved. I don't know when I became aware of Jane Goodall and her work with primates in Africa, but I've found her a fascinating individual for as long as I can remember. (So true is this statement that my oldest child's middle name is Jane.) So when I came across this book, I knew I had to read it and spread the word to others. It is the perfect book for lovers of graphic novels, lovers of biography, or lovers of animals, especially monkeys. Primates describes how Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas became primatologists and how their lives intertwined both personally and professionally. By representing both aspects of their lives, the reader sees each woman as an individual, getting support from family and friends as they grow professionally. Although Wicks's illustrations are cartoony, they depict the simplicity of the women's lives in Africa. Ottaviani does a fantastic job of showing each woman's strengths, their individual accomplishments, and their shared passion for primatology.

This is a quick but inspirational read, and will allow tweens and teens an opportunity to see how people can follow their passions to achieve their dreams, or find satisfaction going down a road they weren't expecting to follow.--Suzanne Temple, Cataloger


Aviary Wonders Inc., Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual

Written and illustrated by Kate Samworth

Reading Aviary Wonders the first time, I paused briefly, and then re-read it, a bit more slowly, paying closer attention to all the details. This is a book that can be read (and used) on so many levels. A cautionary tale, this "catalog" explores a possibility, "what if all the birds were gone," using a light, cheery tone and a matter-of-fact approach.

Structured in the form of a catalog including an introduction from the founder, the reader is drawn into the pages that present many options to build your very own bird: colorful beaks, body types, feathers and legs. But then the tone of the book changes when the assembly instructions are given. Gone are the vivid colors, now turned sepia-toned , for instruction on assembling your "living" bird.

My educator friends will love this book for the many close-reading opportunities. Pay attention to the surprises sprinkled throughout. Several times I heard myself saying, "Wait, whaaat did I just read?" The book's subtitle, Renewing the world's bird supply since 2031, is just one of those instances.

I've never read anything like Aviary Wonders: whimsical, weird and hard-hitting. A great gift for bird-watchers  -- and others who haven't really thought much about birds, but will, after reading this book.--Beth Gerall, NoveList Creative Content Supervisor


by Kelly DiPucchio; illustrated by Christian Robinson

Gaston is a charming picture book about family, belonging, and being yourself. Also, puppies!

Gaston (a bulldog) and Antoinette (a poodle) were accidentally switched at birth. Even though they don't look like their brothers and sisters, they're loved and happy in their respective homes. When the mix-up is discovered and the puppies are switched back, they quickly realize that family is about much more than biology.  Kelly DiPucchio's story is great fun to read aloud (especially the puppies' oft-repeated names), and Christian Robinson's uncomplicated yet wonderfully expressive art is a perfect match for DiPucchio's upbeat tone and understated message. (Christian Robinson has a bit of a fan following here at NoveList--I dare you to look at his chunky, stylish illustrations and NOT become a fan yourself.)

Besides being an adorable choice for dog lovers, Gaston would make a lovely gift for adopted kids and their families, as well as for anyone (of any age) who has ever felt like an outsider or found comfort in their chosen family.--Rebecca Honeycutt, NextReads Bibliographer



Written and illustrated by Aaron Becker

The girl and boy from Aaron Becker's Journey return for an action-packed adventure in Quest. The story begins on a rainy day in a city, but this is soon is interrupted. A king emerges from an unusual wooden door under a bridge and hands the children a color-coded map before he is suddenly captured by armed soldiers and pulled back through the door. The children (along with their striking purple bird and their trusty chalk in hand) follow into the fantasy world. The map leads the children through a series of cinematic settings as they collect different colors of chalk on their way to rescue the king.

This is the perfect gift to give to creative kids. Aspiring artists will be captivated by the lavish illustrations that depict everything from underwater Greco-Roman ruins to Mayan temples in a jungle. Imaginative children who like to tell stories or write will have the opportunity to provide their own words to this wordless story. I can't wait for the concluding adventure to the Journey trilogy.--Amy Morgan, Senior Cataloger


That New Animal

by Emily Jenkins; illustrated by Pierre Pratt 

As a recent first-time parent who is still struggling to find enough time in each day, this book caught my eye when a coworker cataloged the audiobook version.  Like the new parents in the story, I also have two dogs who have been feeling neglected since the baby arrived.  I'm pretty sure my dogs are having the same thoughts that FudgeFudge and Marshmallow express in That New Animal by Emily Jenkins. 

This slyly humorous picture book is definitely intended as much for parents as it is for children and soon-to-be older siblings.  The story of a family's new addition is told from the viewpoint of the family's two dogs who are not at all impressed by the infant commanding so much of their parent's attention.  The back and forth between FudgeFudge and Marshmallow is hilarious as they discuss options for dealing with the interloper.  Thankfully, the story ends happily with the dogs being won over by the baby and the parents finding time to pay attention to their fur children.

Pierre Pratt's simple illustrations highlight the dogs' feelings of neglect as they observe the(ir) parents doting on the new baby while ignoring them.  The colorful paintings are exaggerated in style but still realistic as to the scale (when viewed from a dog's perspective).  This feel-good and optimistic story would make a great gift for a wide range of families.--Renee Young, Juvenile Cataloging Supervisor


Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

by Ted Naifeh

Ideal for fans of Coraline, Amulet, and the Series of Unfortunate Events, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is a graphic novel that follows a young girl who has recently moved with her parents into her great uncle's giant, creepy mansion.  Courtney's careless parents are more interested in attending parties and looking wealthy than in caring for their daughter, and Courtney finds herself, yet again, facing bullies at school by day and a dark, empty house by night.  A chance encounter with a monster and some investigation into her uncle's library introduce Courtney to a world of magic that might just give her the edge she needs to defeat her bullies. 

Or possibly it'll make everyone at school fall in love with her, result in a stolen baby, and require a perilous trip to the Goblin Market.

I love Courtney's sullen, snarky attitude and every little bit we get to see of Uncle Aloysius.  The art is delightfully detailed, and provides the perfect counterpart for the creepy and occasionally hilarious text.  I also loved how unapologetically dark this series is!  A kid disappears in the forest, and no one cares because he wasn't very nice, and babies stolen from their cribs -- just a matter of course.  Despite the goblins and disappearing kids, the series never steps over the line from creepy into scary; Courtney's glares and Uncle Aloysius' book smarts keep the horror at bay. Though the first book came out in 2003 (and was published online as a webcomic before that!), the 6th and final book came out in August of this year.--Alina Gerall, Associate Juvenile Bibliographer 

Super Hair-O and the Barber of Doom

Written and illustrated by John Rocco

With wonderful color illustrations, here is a fabulous picture book for the young superhero fan.  A testament to the confidence, sometimes over-confidence, that a child can display, John Rocco writes of his own superpowers as a youth, swinging on tires and riding his bike over homemade ramps. It reminded me of my own childhood, and that feeling of invincibility one has as a kid. Great sound hints are included within the illustrations ("POW!" and "WHOOSH!") and Rocco's friends provide comic relief with commentary ("Dude!")  The barber is referred to as the villain as Rocco explains that his superpowers actually come from his own long (very long) hair, but these powers are stolen away with each snip of the scissors.  I found his mourning process authentic but hilarious as we see in illustrated speech bubbles just how small and powerless the haircut makes Rocco feel.  He uses color to show just how weak he and his buddies become (their powers have also been stripped by haircuts). Only the challenge of a friend in need could show the young group that hair had nothing to do with it. Young readers will see themselves in the magnificent illustrations as they identify with Rocco who must submit to his parents' and the barber's wills.  Who has never felt their powers stripped away by their parents?  Kids will learn something and love the book too -- adults will relive a powerful time in their lives -- enjoy Super Hair-O and the Barber of Doom.--Lisa Chandek-Stark, Senior Cataloger


The Crossover

by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, a middle grade basketball novel in verse by Kwame Alexander, is a wonderful book that would make a terrific gift for readers of any age who love moving realistic fiction with vivid characters and lots of action. In evocative language, beautifully written with vibrant metaphors, The Crossover addresses family relationships, including the intense sibling bond and rivalry between middle school twins and basketball stars, Josh and Jordan Bell. Readers who already have a passion for basketball will be familiar with the jargon and players mentioned, but The Crossover has tremendous appeal even for those who are new to the sport. A love of music -- with numerous references to jazz, rap, and hip-hop, as well as to classical -- and of language is evident throughout the book, which reads quickly, but invites lingering over well-crafted phrases and images. I have already purchased several copies to give to a variety of recipients. As others have said, The Crossover is truly a "slam dunk!" that deserves a wide audience.--Nancy Margolin, Juvenile Editor


Happy gift-giving!