(This is a joint post by Jen and Lisa).
Now that it’s December, chances are you’ll soon be giving gifts. And no matter what holiday you celebrate, it’s never a bad idea to return to the oldest form of entertainment: ink-and-paper. While it’s a good bet your recipient already owns Harry Potter and the like, here are eight less commonly reads books that are certainly worth keeping:
It’s a Book by Lane Smith (ages 12 and up)
In this delightful spoof, a monkey tries to teach a web-savvy donkey (called jackass, for obvious reasons) what it means to read a book.
How do you scroll down?
I don’t. I turn the page.
Does it blog? Tweet? Require a password?
No, it’s a book!
Although this is a short picture book, the target audience is really adults—both because of the term “jackass” and because it’s funniest to those who understand the printed book/electronic gadgets debate. If there’s any subliminal message about the future of the book industry, you’ll find it in the final pages, when the donkey succumbs to curiosity and loses himself in the book. Suddenly he can’t stop reading…but don’t worry, he tells the monkey, I’ll charge it up when I’m done.
Plain Kate by Erin Bow (YA)
A strange new world with witchcraft and magic?
An orphaned teenage heroine?
A villain, a quest and a funny sidekick?
Typical YA fantasy?
Not so much.
At first glance, Plain Kate looks like cliché fantasy complete with old-fashioned villages and a misunderstood heroine.
But the book succeeds because it doesn’t try to be epic. Kate, the protagonist, simply wants to reclaim her shadow from the witch who took it away. There is no end-of-the world scenario, no only-Kate-can-save-us ultimatum. All the characters are moved by personal motivations, and it’s this economy of scope that allows them to breathe and feel real. Best of all, there’s a talking cat. What more do you need?
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch (all ages)
This lively tale is the perfect rebuttal to Disney damsels in distress: Princess Elizabeth defeats a villainous dragon and rescues her fiancé from the monster’s lair—all while wearing a paper bag (the dragon burned up all her clothes). But Prince Ronald sneers at Elizabeth’s bedraggled state and orders her to return when she looks like a “real princess.” So Elizabeth gives the prince a piece of her mind…and the wedding is most certainly called off.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (ages 12 and up)
Animal lovers, rejoice. Within these pages you will meet cranky cows, precocious pigs, handsome horses and cantankerous cats. By turns funny and tragic, these stories follow the life of James Herriot, a British veterinarian who started working in rural Yorkshire in the 1930’s. Most of his patients were large farm animals—he describes frigid winter mornings delivering calves in the open and painful attempts to treat raging bulls. The occasional small-animal work, when he could tend to a dog in posh, heated living rooms, was most welcome.
It’s hard to describe why the book is good without sounding soppy. Herriot’s patients are unforgettable, and in addition to the animals you have Tristan and Siegfried, fellow veterinarians with personalities as colorful as their names. And once you’re done, there’s always the sequel—All Things Bright and Beautiful—to look forward to.
45+47 Stella Street and Everything That Happened by Elizabeth Honey (ages 10 and up)
Hailing from Down Under, twelve-year-old Henni Octon, budding writer, relates the everyday adventures of the zany, close-knit bunch on Stella Street. There’s best friend Zev, with electric-charged hair, gutsy Danielle, her crazy younger sister, frank Frank who lives at 47, and greedy Briquette, Frank’s sausage dog. Even the Stella Street adults are great fun, especially Frank’s parents Rob and Donna, who can fix anything and grow flowers in even a egg cup’s worth of dirt, respectively.
Enter the Phonies, who move into 45. Snobby and peculiar in the extreme, they gut the old place, buy and generate a lot of expensive rubbish, devise devious ways to get Briquette sent to the pound, and make themselves very unpopular with the neighbors. When the Phonies try to force Frank’s family out of Stella Street, the Stella Street kids respond by taking their snooping to the next level.
There’s sleuthing, crazy plots, hilarious handwritten notes, scrawled sketches, and a climactic airport chase scene. And the characters are so vibrant and likable that you find yourself wanting to be part of Stella Street and you’re reluctant to say goodbye at the story’s end. Thankfully, there’s another adventure waiting in Fiddleback, The Ballad of Cauldron Bay, and To the Boy in Berlin.
Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (ages 10 and up)
Clever boy outwits rich obnoxious landowner by poaching all of his pheasants the night before the big pheasant hunt. How? Read on to find out how Danny pulls off this magnificent stunt. Along the way, indulge in Dahl’s off-the-wall imagination and snarky British wit, especially when he describes the revolting landowner, Mr. Hazell. Disclaimer: avoid this book if you’re offended by the glorification of poaching and by cruelty towards pheasants.
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (ages 10 and up)
It’s always a good sign when you can tell the author had a blast writing the book. Crammed with tongue-in-cheek humor, The Willoughbys is an “old-fashioned” tale about spunky children who want to be orphans and self-involved parents who purposely go around the world on dangerous vacations so they don’t have to bring their kids. What isn’t there to like? Throw in bad German accents, puns and word plays, lots of literary allusions, more orphans, and a candy tycoon, and you’ve got yourself a parody of the hi-larious-est form.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (ages 6 and up)
First published in 1933, this classic book has lovable characters, gorgeous illustrations, and a timeless quality about it. The tales are simplistic, but it’s amazing how easily we as readers relate to river-roaming Rat, mild Mole, brusque Badger, and, if we’re really honest with ourselves, reckless and spoiled Toad.
Well, peace and joy to you and happy holidays and happy reading!