This column originally appeared in the Saturday Gazette-Mail on Dec. 22.
Of course, all of your packages are wrapped and ready, so this list of gift ideas for multiple ages couldn’t possibly interest you. Nevertheless, you are welcome to stay while I recall fondly some of the books I spent time with this year:
• On most bookstore shelves this fall is the latest Lane Smith picture book “Abe Lincoln’s Dream.” Poor old Abe is troubled and restless, and goes on a tour around the White House with a little African-American girl.
During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, during the term of the nation’s first African-American president, with that stunning Lincoln film still playing, it is nice to imagine this child comforting the man who freed the slaves.
It is also good for the spirit to take a break from the problems of the day, both real and imagined, and admire how far the nation has come. This book is short and warm enough for young listeners, but deep enough to engage older readers.
• Another picture book, “Bill the Boy Wonder” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, you may have encountered on West Virginia Book Festival: The Blog. Nobleman was at the Book Festival in October and described how he found and tracked down the forgotten descendants of Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman.
It is a vibrantly illustrated non-fiction tale that appeals not only to Batman fans and comic book readers, but also to anyone with a sense of justice.
• “Dead End in Norvelt” came out last fall, won the 2012 Newbery Medal, as well as the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and is by one of my favorite authors. Jack Gantos, a 2005 Book Festival presenter, set his story in 1962 Norvelt, Pa., one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Depression-era settlement communities, where the author actually lived as a boy.
He borrows heavily from his own childhood for this upper elementary/young adult novel about a family and town pulled between their past and future. Jack’s father is a World War II veteran who wants to shake the dust of the dying town and seek his fortune where there are jobs and opportunity. Jack’s mother was a girl in Norvelt during the Great Depression and wants to maintain the caring community people built there. For all the weighty ideas in this book, it is not heavy. I recently read it to 38 fifth-graders, and they laughed all the way through it.
One thread of the plot involves someone buying vacant houses in Norvelt and moving them to Eleanor, W.Va., another settlement community that is growing, not dying, as the character says. I would love to know what people of Eleanor make of some of the book’s characterizations
• “Alvin Ho” isn’t new, but it is one of my favorites for kids who are reading on their own and have started to move into longer books.
From the moment in 2008 when I picked up “Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things,” I was smitten. Alvin is so scared of school, he is unable to speak there. But at home he is the energetic and vocal Firecracker Man. Alvin’s adventures are full of suspense and action, despite being limited to the world of home, school and the doctor’s office.
• When I picked up “A Coyote’s in the House,” from way back in 2004, I was skeptical. There seems to be no end of well-known adult authors writing kids books that are more about name-dropping than having an interesting and readable story to tell. But with Elmore Leonard, author of gritty, contemporary adult fiction such as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” have no fear.
Meet Antwan, cool, wild and savvy. He wanders into a Hollywood Hills mansion one day, up to no good, where he meets Buddy, an aging film star who wants to get away, see what he’s missing, fill a void in his life. Did I mention almost all the characters are dogs, except for the coyotes?
The sharp dialogue and the picture-perfect storytelling make this book go.
• Finally, another volume I’m giving this year is “A Tale Dark and Grimm” by Adam Gidwitz, published in 2010. I didn’t realize until I saw the Google doodle that this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
I just know this book to be a crowd pleaser. This volume restores the blood and suffering that had been purged from the original stories to make them “suitable” for children. That makes it sound like a lot of gratuitous violence.
But it’s not. The old Grimm tales have been strung together into a novel about Hansel and Gretel. You’ll encounter old folk tales and characters you may not have known, a chatty, easy style, and a story full of love, mistakes, struggle, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption and growth.
That makes it a very seasonal choice, indeed.