So you want to be the aunt (or uncle, godparent, family friend, etc.) who gives a kid the gift of reading this holiday season. Unfortunately for you, children change all the time. One minute they’re gaga for Thomas the Tank Engine, the next they’re blubbering over a John Green sob-fest about precocious teens.
How then to navigate the minefield of seasonal shopping without sending the literary equivalent of an ugly sweater?
You could spend hours comparing reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Or you could consult this handy guide to some of the year’s best books, substantially increasing your odds of being the cool one who sent the present they’ll be glued to all Christmas afternoon, long after their parents have confiscated all the beepy, glowing things.
(upper elementary to middle school)
For the series fan: New installments in a number of popular long-running series are now available, including: “Old School (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 10)” by Jeff Kinney; “How to Train Your Dragon: How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury” by Cressida Cowell; “The Genius Files #5: License to Thrill” by Dan Gutman; and “Ever After High: A Semi-Charming Kind of Life” by Suzanne Selfors.
New look for an old favorite: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: the Illustrated Edition” is a gorgeous take on the first volume in J.K. Rowling’s magical series, with full-color paintings by artist Jim Kay breathing fresh life into beloved characters and settings. Perfect for the completist collector or the first-time Potter reader.
Real-world adventure: “The Great Greene Heist” by Varian Johnson features an appealing and nonhomogenous group of brainy junior high kids doing their best to foil nefarious political hijinks at their school. A sequel is forthcoming in early 2016.
A fractured fairy tale with heart: Megan Morrison’s “Grounded: the Adventures of Rapunzel” opens with a cheerful Rapunzel happily ensconced in her tower, rebuffing the advances of annoying princes. Only when she is forced to descend among the scary ground people does Rapunzel begin to discover the true story of her world, and the witch, and what she’s been missing while locked away.
Arthurian adventure with rodents: In “Ratscalibur” by Josh Lieb, an ordinary boy is transformed by a dying “ragician” into a furry, four-legged hero who must attempt such epic tasks as pulling the spork from the scone.
Southern-fried mystery: “The Odds of Getting Even” by Sheila Turnage is the hilarious third book set in tiny Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, home to aspiring detective Mo LoBeau and a colorful cast of friends and enemies. For greatest enjoyment, start with the first installment, Newbery Honor book “Three Times Lucky.”
Swashbuckling across the multiverse: “City of Thirst” by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis follows the duo’s earlier “The Map to Everywhere” with more fast-paced fantasy adventure for the video-game generation, featuring pirate ships and magical maps and a heroic boy-girl duo from different worlds.
The potion-making mini-trend: Don’t be surprised if ‘apothecary’ becomes the new hot career track after kids read “The Blackthorn Key” by Kevin Sands (a historical murder mystery with gross-outs and explosions); “The After-Room” by Maile Meloy (the sensitive and literary third volume in the “Apothecary” series); and the light-hearted fantasy romance “Madly” by Amy Alward, which features an “Amazing Race” style jaunt around an alternate version of our world, with magical creatures and exotic plants.
Reared on Riordan: Devotees of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (playing on Greek mythology) and Kane Chronicles (repeating the favor with Egyptian lore) already may have a copy of his latest series opener, “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer,” which draws from Norse myth. To play it safe, expand their reading horizons with a copy of “D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths,” an excellent collection of illustrated legends that will further their acquaintance with Loki, et al. (The same authors’ book about Greek mythology is also highly recommended.)
Young Adult Readers
(14 and older):
Dark fairy tale with feminist leanings: Resonant, poetic, magical and fierce, Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” is one of the best books of the year for any age, as evidenced by its National Book award nomination. A beautiful girl disappears from a small Midwestern town and the only witness — her boyfriend’s younger brother — can’t describe the man who took her.
The pseudo paranormal: Part send-up of tired YA trends and part earnest tale of a group of friends with a grab bag of “ordinary” problems, “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness is the perfect book for the satirically inclined. While the so-called “indie kids” with their exotic first names battle the latest supernatural scourge somewhere off the page, the supposedly normal main characters grapple with more mundane issues — and hope their school survives the fallout from whatever Finn, Finn, Satchel, Aquamarine and Finn are up to long enough for the rest of them to graduate.
Witty Sherlock-esque mystery: Stephanie Tromly’s “Trouble is a Friend of Mine” features side-splitting dialogue and a mystery that will appeal to fans of Veronica Mars. New girl in town Zoe Webster is reluctantly drawn into the orbit of eccentric loner Digby, who never met a social cue he didn’t blithely ignore. Sparkling secondary characters and a poignant backstory add depth to this zany caper.
The nouveau dystopian: In Erin Bow’s “The Scorpion Rules,” cataclysmic wars have left a brilliant and irreverent AI (artificial intelligence) named Talis in charge of preserving global peace by holding the children of world leaders hostage at a school that resembles a work camp. If a nation declares war, its heir will be summarily executed — leading to even more tense relations than usual among the mostly adolescent student body.
A newfangled Western: In “Under a Painted Sky” by Stacey Lee, an orphaned Chinese-American girl is befriended by an escaped slave as both flee toward Gold Rush-era California disguised as boys. Cross-dressing and refreshingly diverse cast notwithstanding, this is an old-fashioned yarn with nasty bad guys, true-hearted romance and a death-defying final act.
Swords and whatnot: Fantasy novels have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past several years, with multiple titles competing to be crowned the YA “Game of Thrones.” A solidly entertaining entry for fans of the genre is “The Orphan Queen” by Jodi Meadows, about an exiled princess hoping to reclaim her throne, a dashing mercenary known as Black Knife, and the forbidden magic that threatens both their kingdoms.
Friday night tea lights: First zombies, now high-school football … “First & Then” by Emma Mills is a sweet, thoughtful and witty riff on Jane Austen, relationships and growing up, with a side of sports. Determinedly ordinary high-school senior Devon is juggling a new live-in cousin, nebulous future plans, an unrequited crush, and the taciturn football star who may not be quite as jerky as he seems.
The Emotional Contemporary: Lovers of John Green and Rainbow Rowell have plenty to choose from these days. Robin Benway’s “Emmy & Oliver” hits the sweet spot between clever repartee, young love and poignant drama — in this case the long-ago abduction of Emmy’s childhood best friend Oliver by his father. When Oliver returns, it shakes up Emmy’s whole world, from her relationship with her overprotective parents to the tentative friendship she tries to re-establish with the boy she’s never forgotten.