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 Wringer, The 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.