Eleven (Books for) Birthdays

In December a video went viral showing a three-year-old throwing a snit because he got books for Christmas… he had plenty of toys, too, but he was outraged by the mere presence of books alongside them. I won’t link to the video, since the recreational outrage of thousands of people has already been expressed all over the Internet. I do want to tale on the main point: do books make good presents?

One of my author friends said he gave books at random times, but not for Christmas or birthdays, because “books can’t compete” with toys and video games and so forth. I don’t agree. I sure liked books as presents when I was a kid. I think kids will largely adapt to the world you create for them. Since my family of origin and my own family now constantly gives books as presents, I don’t think my baby boy will ever think it’s unusual to get a book as a gift. Indeed, he’ll probably think it’s weird if a birthday passes without books.



Books can be the perfect birthday present, when the main character is launched into the same year as the child, often with a momentous event. Consider WringerThe Giver, or City of Ember, where children learn their roles in life at a particular age.

Others involve unexpected presents that lead to adventures. A personal favorite is The Silver Crown, a lesser-known novel by Newbery laureate Robert C. O’Brien, features a spectacular birthday present that turns out to be far more than a girl bargains for, while The Indian in the Cupboard has disappointing birthday presents that turn out to be far more wondrous than a young boy expects.

A more recent addition to the canon is Wendy Mass’s 11 Birthdays, about a couple of children who share a birthday, mashed up with a Groundhog Day-inspired plot. Double it up with Lauren Myracle’s Eleven for the perfect birthday present for an eleven-year old. Birthday parties figure into the plots of Wendy Shang’s The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and Cynthia Liu’s Paris Pan Takes the Dare.

If it’s time to kick off a classic series, the first Harry Potter begins with a birthday and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, the book that introduced the incorrigible Fudge to the world, ends with a birthday.

Of course a book doesn’t have to be about a birthday or presents to be the perfect birthday present, but I think a well-chosen one can make the young reader feel a connection to it that they’ll remember long after the flashy, noisy toys are forgotten.


Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, and the forthcoming The Tanglewood Terror. All three are published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Kurtis offers free virtual visits to kids book clubs — see http://www.kurtisscaletta.com/visits for more information.

8 Responses to Eleven (Books for) Birthdays

  1. Natalie Aguirre

    Great choices. I love giving books or gift cards to bookstores.

  2. Hi Kurtis,
    Great list but you are TOO MODEST! I insist on including Kurtis Scalatta’s Mudville. Such a great read for boys or girls — a baseball novel with magical realism and a sorta Native American Curse (think Red Sox versus Yankees on a small town scale!).

    But also love so many of your picks especially The Great Wall of Lucy Wu — just read that and LOVED it. The City of Ember also a must read according to my 5th grader.

  3. Just bought my niece her birthday books. She looks forward to them every year (or else she’s already an accomplished actress).

  4. I’m kind of cocky about my ability to match the right book to the right person whether it’s a major holiday, a birthday, or just because. And I don’t even want to hang out with those books-aren’t-gifts people. Harrumph!

  5. Books (or gift cards for book stores) are the best gifts – any time of year or holiday! This past Christmas, my nephew (age 6) got several of the Bone books and was thrilled. For his birthday, which is just a few days later, he tore through his presents and immediately left the room to go read when he unwrapped another Bone book. Goosebumps is another great ‘holiday’ gift – they’re just plain fun!

  6. OH, Fudge’s birthday party took on a whole new meaning when my kids started having their own!! I love picking out books as presents, trying to find that “just right” one, whether for a kid or grown-up.

  7. My kids always receive books along with other gifts at birthdays and Christmas. And they love them! Plus if they go to a kids’ birthday party, I make sure a book is wrapped along with a toy.
    My kids all got Borders gift cards in their stocking, and it was so fun to bring them and have them pick out books this past weekend. They (and I) loved it! (of course I had to buy some for myself as well…)

  8. I agree. My kids have always received books as gifts from me, and now they look forward to them, just like I always did when i was little.