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What Makes a Good Graduation Gift?

Since you know you can count on somebody else to purchase Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Chicken Soup for the Soul for the new graduate, the Horn Book staff and reviewers thought we might offer some alternative suggestions, based on personal experience — both what we’ve given and what we’ve received — and on what life has taught us about which words we might have needed or heeded back in the day.

Because the gift of a book can be as much imposition as benefaction, I would go with something short, and undemanding in the nicest possible sense. Meaning, you will not be tested on this book by me or anyone else. Also compact, to make it that much more possible for the graduate to take along to wherever he or she is headed next. Any picture book by William Steig has all these qualities, in addition to being wise, generously spirited, and respectful of readers old and young. But which one? I think I’ll go with Brave Irene, because it’s about loving your mom so much you will leave home on her behalf, facing down the elements on your own and getting the job done, earning respect and cake in the end. ROGER SUTTON

Freshman year of college, I had a great roommate. Not only did we think alike, we looked alike — people called us the Madonna twins. We were Frog and Toad with blonde bobs and miniskirts instead of webbed feet and earth-toned jackets. Still, making friends once I left the high school womb didn’t always happen so easily for me. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s hilarious picture book Cowboy and Octopus would have reminded me to look beyond superficialities. Because sometimes the kid with the eight arms and bad taste in hats and the wrangler with a thing for baked beans end up a perfect match. How do they discover their compatibility? As Scieszka and Smith show, they just have to start talking. CHRISTINE M. HEPPERMANN

The book I’d give almost any graduate, from preschool to high school, is Marla Frazee’s picture book Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages. Dedicated to Frazee’s college-bound son, the book truly is for beginners of any age, though its protagonist is one of the author-illustrator’s trademark babies, a shiny faced, bald-headed tot, listening attentively to the narrator, who begins: “Is sitting there on your bottom getting boring? Has lying around all the time become entirely unacceptable? It is time to learn how to walk!” The book is full of good advice (“Remember to breathe”; “Go ahead and cry if it helps”) that, coupled with Frazee’s pictures of the determined toddler, wearing a diaper twice the size of his or her head, will get laughs from both kindergartners and teenagers. From getting started (“The first thing you’ve got to do is stand on your own two feet. It sounds easier than it is”) to first step (“Don’t look down at your feet. Look toward where you want to go. Imagine yourself as already there”), readers will find gentle guidance (“You will need support . . . Be careful of things that are wobbly”) and cool insights (“See how different everything looks from here?”) — reminders that taking baby steps is a natural way to begin almost anything. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

With the world encouraging graduates to be productive, ambitious, effective, and, most of all, very very busy, I like to provide balance with a gift of M. B. Goffstein’s A Writer, which celebrates lying on the couch, and thinking; or, for a more detailed approach to the same idea, How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson. I’m not sure it works. Everyone I’ve given the Hodgkinson book to has told me that they look forward to reading it one day but that right now they just don’t have the time. SARAH ELLIS

Our first son was already a book lover when he graduated from being an only child. At two, he was well versed in Mother Goose and enjoyed identifying the bright pictures in Bruno Munari’s ABC; still, he had yet to follow a real story. The advent of a baby brother precipitated a tenacious case of insomnia. How to calm him so we could all sleep? Night after night, I recounted his own day — familiar enough to follow, eventful enough to mimic plot, with a soothing happy ending: sleep. It worked. Better yet, it prepared him for the more complex solace of what now became his favorite story: The Three Billy Goats Gruff, as illustrated by Marcia Brown. Each night, as the first two goat brothers outwitted the troll, he drew in his breath, holding it until the biggest billy goat tossed the troll into the river. Then he let out a great cathartic gust of a sigh, and was ready to snuggle down for a good night’s sleep. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

Of all the books we sell at the children’s specialty toy store in Brookline Village, Massachusetts, where I work part-time, I repeatedly recommend one book besides Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to customers looking for a great graduation gift: Watty Piper’s and Loren Long’s The Little Engine That Could. Typically I find our customers are looking to give a book to young children and this usually fits their request, but the book’s nostalgic story and message are equally suitable and appealing to teenagers and adults.

This book exudes positive thinking, determination, and perseverance — lessons worth reminding readers of at any new phase in their life. Not only is the Little Blue Engine humble and willing to play the Good Samaritan role — helping others when they are in need — but she is also confident and hard-working as she repeats the book’s famous mantra to herself: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” In her triumph getting over the mountain top, the Little Blue Engine smiles and puffs, “I thought I could,” just as graduates celebrate their ability to turn their “I think I can” experiences into “I thought I could” successes. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Graduations, like many other milestones in life — births, deaths, weddings — represent both an ending and a beginning, a celebration of accomplishment attended by family and friends. As one door closes on the familiar, predictable present, another door opens into an intimidating, uncertain future — and yet the dominant emotions of graduation are not sadness and melancholy but hope and optimism. No book in recent memory captures these contradictory feelings as brilliantly as The Arrival by Shaun Tan does, making it a perfect graduation gift book, one that can be revisited time and again to witness its homage to the buoyancy of the human spirit. JONATHAN HUNT

It’s human nature to achieve one goal and immediately look toward the next. The new preschool graduate looks forward to graduating from kindergarten; the high school graduate looks toward college. One book that suits each occasion is Valerie Worth’s All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, illustrated with line drawings by Natalie Babbitt. Each of Worth’s poems reminds us to stop looking ahead and focus on the moment — look closely at the ordinary things around you, like a chair, or a rosebush in winter, and notice how interesting they are. New graduates should be aware that life isn’t all about the big events, that what really matters most is being aware of the tiny moments of perfection that happen all along the way. And there is always time for a small poem, no matter how busy you are achieving your next goal. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE

When I graduated from high school in [mumble mumble], some of my friends’ parents gave them cars. My parents gave me a walnut rocking chair from E. A. Clore. This might seem an odd choice for a graduation present, but consider this: I still have the chair, and I certainly would not still have the car, given how many years ago [mumble mumble] was.

My rocking chair has caused me to think outside the box when it comes to graduation gifts. Nobody thinks further outside the box than Terry Pratchett, and so I’d recommend his masterpiece, Nation — for any occasion, really, but especially for graduation. Why? Because it’s about how to be a human being, and that ought to be what every graduation brings us closer to. Because it embraces possibilities and questions conventions (why not look at “the world turned upside down”?). Because it rejects absolutes such as perfection (as Locaha — Death — tells island boy Mau, “the perfect world is a journey, not a place”) and happily-ever-after in favor of real life. Shipwrecked Daphne returns to help her father, the king, rule England, while Mau remains behind to govern the Nation, now recognized as a center of scientific learning where you can look through a telescope and see stars in the daytime. (It’s like the Rolling Stones and the Glee kids said: You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes, you just might find / You get what you need.) There aren’t many novels that leave their readers both clear-headed and starry-eyed; not a bad state in which to start any new phase in life. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

My high school graduation book wasn’t a formal gift. I found the dog-eared copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower squashed between the couch and the mini fridge in my dorm common room not long after my anxious return to my boarding school for the final semester. I knew where I was going to college. I had made the varsity lacrosse team. I had even decided my prom hairstyle (like Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but I still felt rudderless. I wandered around campus with such obvious desperation that I was more than once mistaken for a freshman. The “Real World” all of a sudden seemed highly overrated.

I started reading Wallflower with the same intensity I attacked texts for AP English. When I was finished with Charlie, Sam, and Patrick I went back, made a list, and read the books Charlie’s English teacher assigns him. I revisited A Separate Peace for the third time. I reread most of The Great Gatsby during away-game bus rides. I’m embarrassed to say I even embraced Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Objectivism with all my teenage enthusiasm and devoured The Fountainhead in a matter of weeks. By prom my senior angst had abated, but graduation arrived before I made it all the way through Naked Lunch. When I moved out I wedged Wallflower right where I’d found it — waiting for another reader to find some comfort in Charlie’s books and his letters to a stranger. CHELSEY G. H. PHILPOT

The Flight of the Maidens, by Jane Gardam, is my favorite graduation gift for literary girls. Three friends in the British northeast go their separate ways in the summer of 1946, between graduating from high school and starting university. Gardam is such a wise, comic genius that every girl sees something of herself here — and at the same time, the novel is full of subtlety, unpredictable turns, and the painful and hilarious glory of stepping out into the world.

After she graduated from high school, my daughter and I hit the road for our annual late-June Toronto-to–Vancouver Island road trip. My daughter read this aloud in the car: golden prairie twilight, huge skies, our warm excitement at the honesty and surprisingness of Gardam’s characters and plot — that was a graduation gift for both of us. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

I used to give a thesaurus and dictionary for high school graduation. That’s so last century. My current choice for high school and college graduates comes with an agenda. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich records her unsuccessful attempts to survive by being employed at the lowest paying jobs, such as clerking at Wal-Mart, cleaning hotel rooms, and waiting tables. She concludes that job satisfaction requires either money or respect, with a combination of the two being optimal. I want young adults to consider these concepts when thinking about their own future careers and when interacting with our nation’s working poor who typically receive neither a living wage nor admiration. BETTY CARTER

When my kids graduated, one of the first things they did was call my husband for recipes. Not me, of course. They knew better. They wanted to know how to make the dishes he had made for them, and the cookbook with the most dog-eared pages in our kitchen was Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham. It soon became a go-to gift for graduates. The detailed directions will convince any cook, new or experienced, of the joy of home cooking. I may not cook dinner often, but I eat meals from this book all the time. The last chapter, “Here Comes Dessert,” is my personal favorite! ROBIN L. SMITH

I have the following quotation, attributed to Gloria Steinem, above my desk at work: “The only human being on TV to whom you would entrust the future of the world.” She’s talking about Fred Rogers, and while I’m not sure where the quote came from or if Ms. Steinem has ever really given Mister Rogers much thought, I think it sums up his character perfectly. And speaking of the future, my gift to newly minted graduates would be The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. It’s a small, easily digestible collection of his homespun musings on growth, love, feelings, listening, respect, and, of course, how to treat our neighbors. Sure, some of his insights are a bit corny (not unlike many graduation speeches), but what better guide for someone on the threshold of change than Mister Rogers? After all,
He’s proud of you.
He’s proud of you.
He hopes that you are proud of you, too!

Good Graduation Books

The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Harcourt, 1985) by P. C. Asbjørnsen and J. E. Moe; illus. by Marcia Brown

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (MTV/Pocket/Simon, 1999) by Stephen Chbosky

Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1999) by Marion Cunningham

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan/Owl/Holt, 2001) by Barbara Ehrenreich

Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages (Harcourt, 2006) by Marla Frazee

Flight of the Maidens (Carroll & Graf, 2001) by Jane Gardam

A Writer (Harper, 1984) by M. B. Goffstein

How to Be Idle (HarperCollins, 2005) by Tom Hodgkinson

The Little Engine That Could (Philomel, 2005) retold by Watty Piper; illus. by Loren Long

Nation (Harper, 2008) by Terry Pratchett

The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember (Hyperion, 2003) by Fred Rogers

Cowboy and Octopus (Viking, 2007) by Jon Scieszka; illus. by Lane Smith

Brave Irene (Farrar, 1986) by William Steig

The Arrival (Levine/Scholastic, 2007) by Shaun Tan

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More (Farrar, 1994) by Valerie Worth; illus. by Natalie Babbitt

From the May/June 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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