I find it hard to give children’s books as presents. First, because I’m afraid my friends and family will think I’m just unloading surplus copies from the office, but mostly because it seems completely impossible to know just which book to give. How was I to know that “everybody” had already read Holes in fifth grade, or Hatchet in fourth? How many copies of Goodnight Moon has that new baby already received? How can you know if a young nephew’s once-expressed interest in, say, gardening, has blossomed, and if so, how much?
Parents, of course, should have a pretty good idea of their progeny’s reading likes and dislikes, but even here it’s wise to seek professional help, for too many otherwise sophisticated adult minds turn to mush at the thought of children’s books. Skip the winsome, fairy-dusted extravaganzas that catch your eye in the bookstore — they look that way because publishers know you’re doing the buying, if not the reading. Likewise, bypass the soft-focus, pastoral fables of intergenerational friendship, cruelly but accurately known in the trade as “grandma traps.” And as for books by celebrities, ask yourself this: does my skill with a forklift make me fluent in French? Does my dab hand with griddlecakes mean I was born to yodel?
Probably the best way of all to bestow a book is to make the gift a date: you, the recipient, a bookstore. Go after the holidays, when the crowds and the mania have subsided. Find a bookstore with a bookseller (oddly, no longer a foregone conclusion) and try to get a tour of the possibilities. Make the browsing part of the present.
When it comes time to settle on the take-home title, however, step aside. While you can hope that the browsing has suggested that there is a world beyond Princess Sparklepony and the Mischievous Vampire Twins, this is no time to impose your own tastes: it’s supposed to be a gift, not an imposition. What you are giving, along with a book, is choice and independence, two of the finest things that reading has to offer.
From the November/December 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.