Books for Kids: The gift of reading is a holiday tradition worth treasuring

Welcome to the holiday gift-giving season, a time to pry kids away from digital devices so they can lose themselves in a good book instead.

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Welcome to the holiday gift-giving season, a time to pry kids away from video and digital devices so they can lose themselves in a good book instead — and if they’re not old enough to read for themselves, a time for older family members to curl up with the kids and read aloud from a new storybook.

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As you’ll see in one of the suggested titles below, in Iceland gifting a book has been a traditional part of Christmas Eve for decades while Christmas Day is spent reading and drinking hot chocolate. To bring that tradition closer to home, visit your local bookshop to check out the following gift suggestions and numerous other titles. Not only can books spark a child’s imagination and bring generations closer together, they’re easy to wrap!

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Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story
By Fran Manushkin
Illustrated by Kris Easler
Charlesbridge

A familiar story about a family snowed in during the holidays makes a reappearance with a totally new look, thanks to the illustrations of Minnesota artist Kris Easler. First published in 1989 by Scholastic with illustrations by Robin Spowart, this new edition tells the story of the Menashe family — Papa, Mama, Rebecca and Ezra — whose plans for a Hanukkah feast are thwarted by a heavy snowfall that buries the potatoes and apples needed for latkes and applesauce. With only soup to eat for the first few nights of Hanukkah, the family’s hunger does not stop them from taking in a stray kitten and lost dog and sharing the bit of soup — a kindness the animals repay on the eighth night when the snow abates, the dog digs up some potatoes and the cat climbs a tree where hardy apples hide within the snowy branches. The book ends with notes on the origins of Hanukkah, the role latkes play in the Hanukkah story, and the significance of the dreidels with which Rebecca and Ezra play. For ages three to seven.

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The Christmas Book Flood
By Emily Kilgore
Illustrated by Kitty Moss
Farrar Straus Giroux

In a lyrical text, Minnesota’s Emily Kilgore describes a wintry scene as a country’s annual Book Flood approaches and townsfolk engage in the warmth of family and friendship, searching for the perfect book to give their loved ones on Dec. 24. Illustrated in mixed media by Ireland’s Kitty Moss, the busy and colourful images include collage elements of cut and torn paper and newsprint.

In The Christmas Book Flood, a little girl carries a load of gift books as she heads home on her bicycle to spend Christmas Day reading and drinking hot cocoa.
In The Christmas Book Flood, a little girl carries a load of gift books as she heads home on her bicycle to spend Christmas Day reading and drinking hot cocoa. Photo by KITTY MOSS /Farrar Straus Giroux

An author’s note at the end of the book talks about Kilgore’s visits to Iceland and the Christmas Book Flood tradition that had its roots in the post-Second World War economy, when there were limits on certain foods and giftware but paper was more leniently governed, so books became the go-to gift for Christmas. In 2015, the author tells us, a version of the Icelandic Book Flood was introduced in the U.K. and two years later “the tradition was presented to the global community at the London Book Fair.” This book is aimed at ages four to eight.

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Strum & Drum: A Merry Little Quest
Written and illustrated by Jashar Awan
Tundra Books

Colourful, stylized images depict two little musicians — one strumming a guitar, the other playing a drum — travelling through the woods, heading for the Great Star in the north and making joyful music all the way. En route, they are joined by animals and characters including a soldier prince (read: Nutcracker) who warns them to be “silent and still — or the beast with green eyes will catch you, it will.” The two musicians, undaunted, continue their quest to reach the Great Star, gathering more and more band members until the beast makes its appearance in the dark. A surprise ending, accompanied by a distinct change in art style, will likely prompt the intended audience of three- to seven-year-olds to turn back to the beginning of the book and demand a reread. (Any adult reading this book aloud to a little one would be wise not to lift the dust jacket until after an initial read is completed, lest the surprise ending lose its impact.)

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After the Buzz Comes the Bee
By Rachel Isadora and Robie Rogge
Illustrated by Rachel Isadora
Holiday House

Need a gift for a very young child this holiday season? Check out this volume, aimed at ages two to five. Text is minimal and guaranteed to capture the little one’s curiosity, each brief animal sound leading to a flap that can be lifted to reveal the animal in question. The book’s pages are stiff and glossy and should be able to withstand inquisitive little fingers; the illustrations are large, clear and amusing. Highly recommended.

Farmhouse
Written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Little, Brown

In an author’s note at the end of this picture book, Caldecott Medal-winning Sophie Blackall talks about the old farm she bought “that came with a falling-down house where 12 children were born and raised — a house filled with scraps and fragments that helped me imagine the lives lived within its walls.” Incorporating those scraps and fragments of wallpaper, fabric, notebooks and newspapers into her art, Blackall tells the story of an old farmhouse, its lively and industrious occupants, and how time took its toll on the aging structure once those occupants had moved on. A unique and loving account of a family home. Aimed at ages four to eight, but good for all ages.

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Apartment 713
By Kevin Sylvester
HarperCollins

A home of a very different — and sometimes mysterious — sort is featured in this middle-grade novel by Toronto’s Kevin Sylvester. It tells the story of young Jake Simmons (his age is never specified, but I’m guessing he’s about 12 or 14) whose mom has lost her job, so the two of them have moved into a rundown apartment in a nine-storey building that has seen better days. A disappointed, angry Jake who resents the move grows into a kind, eager young lad who befriends the many odd characters who call the building home — including a girl his own age who lives with her mother in a supposedly empty apartment that turns out to be a time-travel portal to a year soon after the First World War, when the building was new and filled with surprising architectural features. A lively, engaging (and occasionally heartbreaking) novel aimed at ages eight to 12, but thoroughly loved by this much older reader. With spot illustrations by the author.

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Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: The Seaside Corpse
By Marthe Jocelyn
Illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books

Speaking of things mysterious, budding Agatha Christie fans will be happy to find this volume among their holiday gifts. Set in 1903, the fourth and final book in a series by Ontario author Marthe Jocelyn has 12-year-old sleuth Aggie (i.e., Agatha) Morton and her Belgian sidekick Hector Perot at a seaside camp where a 27-year-old paleontologist is busy unearthing the sizable fossil of an ichthyosaur. When Aggie and Hector find a body on the beach and it turns out to be the young paleontologist’s 47-year-old husband, they become embroiled in the mystery of how he died and/or who killed him. For ages 10 to 13.

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Working Boats
By Tom Crestodina
Little Bigfoot

If your young reader is less interested in story and more interested in non-fiction — especially the workings of a seagoing vessel — then this book is a great gift choice. Subtitled An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft, it features incredibly detailed cross-section illustrations of such working boats as a tugboat, ferry boat, salmon troller, Coast Guard cutter, fireboat and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) research ship. The cutaway views include the people working on these ships, which adds a lively and accessible element to the images. An extensive glossary at the end of the book describes parts of the boats that landlubbers might not be familiar with. For ages seven to 10.

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This Book Is Not a Present
By Max Greenfield
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
G.P. Putnam’s Sons

A bit of comic relief is always welcome, even in a list of titles one hopes will turn kids into book lovers. Hence, this tongue-in-cheek volume that tries to convince the reader it might look like a book, but is definitely not a present. With colourful lettering and cartoonish art, we’re told by the narrator of the disappointment felt when, “expecting something, anything, other than a book,” the gift was opened. Why couldn’t it have been a dog or a skateboard? “Even socks would have been a great present because at least socks would keep my feet warm while riding my SKATEBOARD and playing with what could have been my new dog. I would’ve named the dog BINGO.” Aimed at ages four to eight, but readers of all ages are bound to get a chuckle from this book. (For me, the laugh came when the narrator said it had better not be a chapter book and I turned the page to see an ornate illustration announcing “Chapter 2: Gratitude.”)

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