Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Fun Children’s Book Gifts for Christmas

by Susan Stephenson,

With all my heart and mind, I believe that the gift of reading makes the best gift of all. While I also believe in giving children ownership of their own reading for pleasure by encouraging them to choose a book, I know books also make great gifts. I still remember the books I received as a child - they became like friends to me. Receiving a carefully chosen book as a gift can open up a whole new world of reading to kids, exposing them to stories they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered.

With this in mind, this year I have been compiling a list of books that I think might make fun gifts for children you know. Many are “gift books”, meaning there’s something special about them, perhaps they come packed with a toy or are paper-engineered. Many are wonderful stories, all set to entertain and inform. Many are both! I have not concentrated on books with a Christmas theme, just on books for children that I think would make memorable and exciting gifts to open on Christmas Day.

This time of year has traditionally been a time of giving, so if you’re stuck for ideas on what to buy, check out the bookeriffic list in three sections, below:

While our very youngest readers may tend to chomp on a book or hold it upside down, their books are incredibly important as first steps on their journey to reading.

Where is the Green Sheep? 

Written by Men Fox, illustrated by Judy Horace, published by Puffin (Penguin) 2006.

This is probably my all-time favourite book for littlies. It works on so many levels, and though it’s available in different formats, I suggest you buy it as a board book. It’s also available in hardback, accompanied by a gorgeous soft green sheep.

Owl Babies 

Written by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson, first published by Walker Books 1992, has been republished in two 25th Anniversary editions, a board book and a picture book.

From the publisher:

Never has the plight of young ones who miss their mum been so sensitively told or so beautifully rendered as in this tale from picture book masters, Patrick Benson and Martin Waddell and, with a foreword and gorgeous golden foil on the cover and spine, this edition is one to share and treasure.
Owl Babies is also one of my all time favourite children’s picture books. It can only be described as a classic and I honestly believe a copy should be in every home and library. In it we read about three owl babies, Sarah, Percy and Bill, who are not quite sure where their mother is. They wait in the dark in the wood where “things moved all around them.” Kids understand the tension that builds during the story, and will inevitably heave a huge sigh of relief when they hear “AND SHE CAME.” You can read my original review here.

Benson’s beautiful atmospheric illustrations complement Waddell’s perfectly chosen words. Each baby owl’s character is made clear in dialogue, especially Bill’s. I love that Owl Babies helps kids realise they are not the only ones that worry about where Mummy might be, and are vastly reassured by the owl Mummy coming home. Owl Babies makes a great bedtime story too.

Check out the very cute trailer for this edition in the video below.

Sophie la Girafe: Sophie’s Big Busy Play Book

Sophie la Girafe is a French toy that has been made since 1961. It’s a baby teether and there are are other Sophie products. At 24 cm x 24 cm, Sophie’s Big Busy Play Book is larger than the average board book, but perfect for reading in a high chair or with a parent to help support the book. It’s published by DK, part of Penguin Random House. RRP: $Au 24.99.

I loved the range of interactivity in this board book. Little ones can touch different textures, peek through holes, and lift flaps. The book also encourages them to answer questions and make noises, identify colours and count 1, 2, 3. I also loved the mostly pastel colour scheme with brighter highlights, and Sophie the giraffe, herself. This is a sweet, cute and fun book for babies and toddlers that is sturdy and encourages conversations between parents and child.

Busy Vet 

Created by Luise Forshaw, published by Campbell Books (Pan Macmillan Australia) (2017.) RRP:
$Au 6.99

Busy Cafe 

Created by Luise Forshaw, published by Campbell Books (Pan Macmillan Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au 6.99

Busy Vet and Busy Café are described as “novelty board books”. A novelty book generally has something special about its format, perhaps flaps to lift or other feats of paper engineering. What I like about these two is that the moving parts are quite robust. Kids will love interacting with the sliders which are made from card almost as thick as the pages. I also loved the attention to detail. The text is simple, but rhyming, making it easier for kids to memorise, an important part of their reading journey. The characters in both books are large and colourful, but there’s a lot of side detail for children to discuss as they explore all the things involved with being in a café or at the vet’s. Characters also ask questions inviting kids to observe, count, comment etc.

With an RRP of $Au 6.99, these books are excellent value.

These Dorling Kindersley books are board books, and even though I am recommending them for gift giving and for kids under 5, I know they will also make excellent library books and be very popular with slightly older kids. They are sturdy enough to stand up to repeated reading and pointing.

Both books feature large, colourful, glossy, illustrated pages. Kids are asked in the minimal text to do things like find the odd one out or spot ten differences. Often there are very strange things to notice that will make kids laugh. In Out and About, the scenarios are places we visit in an English town; in Building Site kids encounter tools and a range of construction equipment. There are answer keys at the back. I love the idea of these books as gifts because I believe they encourage parents to interact with their kids during a shared reading - discussing, chatting, counting, observing and noticing - all these are literacy skills that children develop naturally via a read-aloud with Mum or Dad. The giggles and cuddles are what make it special!

What’s Next Door?

Kids love picture books that invite them to play, especially books that ask for their help and want them to take part in the story. What’s Next Door? was created by Nicola O’Byrne and published by Nosy Crow (Allen and Unwin in Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB

Carter is a crocodile who wants to go home. He can’t do that by himself though - he needs kids to help him. So children will find themselves using their fingers to trace doors and their imaginations to create environments Carter might like. They’ll blow on Carter to dry him out and jiggle the book to help him through. None of your passive listeners required here! Kids will adore the brightly coloured illustrations, especially the die-cut pages that can be peeked through and create a real sense of anticipation. I’ll be adding What’s Next Door to my List of Hilarious Interactive Picture Books for Kids.

Why Can’t I Be a Dinosaur?

Sometimes what you want in a gift is a story that will resonate on more than one level. Here’s a children’s picture book that will appeal to both kids and parents too. Why Can’t I Be a Dinosaur? was written by Kylie Westaway, illustrated by Tom Jellett and published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB

It tells the story of Nellie, a little girl who would so much rather wear her green dinosaur costume than dress up as flower girl for Aunt Daisy’s imminent wedding. Parents will grin ruefully over the tactics the mum and dad in the book employ to try to influence their very determined offspring. And children will grin over the tactics Nellie employs right back! Can you guess what Nellie will wear to the wedding? Buy this one for kids who appreciate humour - they will enjoy not just the perfectly-paced story and spot-on dialogue, but also Jellett’s hilarious illustrations.

Possum Magic Book and Toy

I love the idea of pairing a book with a toy. Both add to each other’s value, becoming even more special than they would be alone. In this Book and Toy set, there is a copy of the hardcover Possum Magic picture book by Men Fox and Julie Vivas, and a very cute soft toy possum. The publisher is Omnibus, and the RRP is $Au 29.99.

Possum Magic tells the story of a possum called Hush, and his magical Grandma who makes Hush invisible. When Hush wants to become visible again, Grandma Poss and Hush set off around Australia searching for the food Grandma needs to work the reverse magic. The set would make an excellent choice for a child who doesn’t already have the book of this great Australian classic, and who would value owning a cuddly little possum. The book itself is smaller in size than a “normal” children’s picture book, but is exactly the same in illustrations and text, just slightly scaled down. The possum itself is nicely soft, and has lots of cute detail to make it look authentic.

Have You Seen My Giraffe?

If you’re buying a gift for kids, you really can’t go wrong with a children’s picture book that will appeal to their heads and their hearts. Have You Seen My Giraffe? was written by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by Claire Powell and published by Simon and Schuster (2017.) RRP: $Au 14.99 PB

From the publisher:

Did you know that they don’t give away goldfish at the fairground anymore? You can win a giraffe instead. So much better! Although, you might come across a few problems when you bring your cute new pet home. Giraffes tend to be big and clumsy, so here is a handy guide of all the best places to hide them...

The appeal to children's heads comes in the form of a beautifully subversive story that invites youngsters to disregard the problems in having a pet giraffe, and come up instead with ways to hide or disguise it. The appeal to their hearts is the premise: what child wouldn’t want to have a pet giraffe of their very own? Robinson knows just how to address kids and speaks through the young protagonist who knows exactly how Mum and Dad will react, but has answers for everything. Powell’s brightly coloured and detailed illustrations add so much to the humour, giving opportunities for chuckles and chortles at each page turn. Great story, great art work, lots of laughs - you can’t go wrong!


Some gift givers look for a book that has an important message, but not one that preaches to kids. Leaf was created by Sandra Dieckmann, and published by Flying Eye Books (distributed in Australia by Walker Books) (2017.) RRP: $Au 27.99 HB

From the publisher:

Crow saw it first. The strange white creature, carried upon the dark waves towards the shore...

When a polar bear arrives unexpectedly in the woods, the other animals fear and avoid him, suspecting him to be dangerous – and his odd habit of collecting leaves only adds to their distrust. Then one day, they watch as he attempts to fly over the water with wings made of colourful leaves... trying to get back home. Perhaps he isn't so different after all?

Leaf is a beautiful quality children’s picture book. Its message is one about acceptance and friendship, and also touches on climate change. I believe many children will recognize the way we humans tend to be suspicious of anyone who seems different, and react with anger, driven by fear. Leaf is nevertheless a joyous story, with clever crows finding a solution that helps everyone. The illustrations are almost breath-taking, glowing with bright colours and patterns on matte paper.

I am including Leaf in my list here today because I am in awe of its beauty and want everyone to share my delight. It's currently on my draft list of The Book Chook's Top Picture Books 2017. I’ll also be adding Leaf to my List of Children’s Picture Books that Celebrate Diversity.

Find It! Christmas

Find It! Christmas is an activity book with a jazzy Christmas theme. The publisher is Make Believe Ideas. It’s available in Australia through Scholastic, and is also available in the US and UK. RRP: $Au 12.99

From the publisher:

This festive activity book is packed with Christmas-themed search-and-find activities to keep children busy and happy!

Children can read the fun, rhyming text, and then explore the busy pictures to find the items that are different. There are also fun card press-outs and more than 500 cute stickers.

It’s great to find puzzle books that are suitable for younger kids. Those of us older folk who love crosswords, jigsaws etc will definitely want to share the fun solving puzzles can bring. Although there’s no story involved in this book, there ARE short rhyming instructions for the search and find activities. I loved the very cute and colourful art work, and wish I could credit the artist involved. But the book is not just full of search and find activities. At the back, there are press-out pieces that can become cards, gift tags and decorations, along with really cute Christmas-themed stickers.

This book makes a great stocking filler - I know children’s eyes will light up when they see all the activities they can do, including such bling as stickers!

Rodney Loses It

Rodney Loses It is a children’s picture book by Michael Gerard Bauer, illustrated by Chrissie Krebs and published by Omnibus Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB

From the publisher:

Rodney was a rabbit who loved nothing more than drawing. He never found it tiresome, tedious or boring. But then one day, disaster struck, the one thing Rodney feared, while working at his drawing desk his pen just...DISAPPEARED!

Here’s a picture book I’ve chosen for kids 5 plus because I think they will truly appreciate its clever use of language. Its rollicking rhyme and rhythm make it great for memorisation, and it definitely begs to be read aloud. I loved the clever twist at the end, and kids will too.

The illustrations really add to the fun. Rodney is portrayed as a slightly demented buck-toothed and bespectacled rabbit, and at times we see him complete with shower cap, or bow-tie, or upside down in a waste basket. Krebs proves she is game for all the linguistic challenges Bauer throws at her!

Rodney Loses It makes a hilarious gift for any child, but particularly those very special kids who love to play with words. Bauer happens to be one of my favourite Australian authors of children's chapter books too.

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate

When you’e getting older and learning to read independently, it’s nice to discover a book that’s tailor-made for you. The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate was written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, and published by Walker Books Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB. I have previously reviewed The Princess in Black, and The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party.

From the publisher:

Princess Magnolia and Princess Sneezewort have plans . . . mysterious plans, like a princess playdate! They dress-up slam! They karaoke jam! They playhouse romp and snack-time stomp! But then a shout from outside Princess Sneezewort's castle interrupts their fun. It’s a monster trying to eat someone’s kitty! This is a job for the Princess in Black. Yet when the Princess in Black gets there, she finds only a masked stranger and no monster in sight . . . or is there?

There’s just as much action and fun in this latest in the Princess in Black series. Girls in particular will love that here is a real chapter book for them to read, with the additional help of large font and many accompanying illustrations. I love the fact that these books show strong girl heroes and have so many laugh-aloud moments. The fact that this is part of a series means that kids can rely on the characters and stories to be equally as good.

Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere!

I prefer not to make pronouncements about what people “should” or “should not” read. But here I go anyway. Deep in my heart I believe every family should own at least one Where’s Wally? book. Why? I truly don’t want anyone to miss out of the fun!

Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere! was written and illustrated by Martin Handford, and published by Walker Books (2017.)

This is the latest in the Where’s Wally stable. To celebrate Wally’s 30th anniversary, Handford has chosen 12 favourite scenes from earlier books. So Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere! would in fact, be an excellent gift choice for a child who is new to the books. However, staunch Wally fans are catered for too, because Wally and his friends are in different places to what they were in the original scenes. There are also new images not found in earlier Wally books.

There’s something so magical and entrancing about visual puzzle books. Kids love to pore over the detailed illustrations with their friends: searching, discussing, and exclaiming. In my experience, so do adults. In fact, Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere! would make a great gift for the whole family! Where’s Wally? books also make excellent coffee table books - visitors will immediately start searching, and neither old not young will be able to resist.

Busy Builders: Airport

Busy Builders: Airport was written by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Carlos Ballesteros and published by Walker Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB

Often gift-givers want to give children something they can play with. Don’t rule out books if this applies to you! Some special books do double-duty as games AND books; others arrive as a set. Busy Builders Airport is a 92 cm airport play set that comes in a robust box which contains:
* a 32 page book
* a fold out airport
* punch out models for kids to assemble into features of the airport
* the box itself becomes part of the play experience

The Busy Builders Airport book is a great example of an information text. Short 2 page chapters include Security Check, Cargo Planes, In Flight and Landing. Each double page has cute and colourful graphics accompanied by text boxes with explanations of each feature. The construction process to put the set together is explained in back of the book, but mostly consists of slotting two or more cardboard pieces so that a model becomes free-standing.

I am recommending this set to children 5-9, but I think preschoolers would certainly enjoy it with adult help for the reading and constructing. No help needed for playing!

ABC Pop-Up

ABC Pop-Up is an alphabet book by Courtney Watson McCarthy, published by Candlewick Studio (Walker Books Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au 29.99 HB.

Are you thinking perhaps I’ve lost the plot in placing ABC Pop-Up in the section for kids 5 - 9? This is a lovely little book, with each letter of the alphabet depicted in clever paper engineering. I think kids at 5 are old enough to take care of it by having clean hands and touching gently. Children who are beginning to learn letters and sounds will enjoy finding the small embossed letters on each 3D paper sculpture, while readers of any age will marvel over their intricacy and colourful design.

As children open each page, a sculpture unfolds as if by magic. From a juice carton complete with drinking straw, to an almost abstract depiction of the word “No”, to the visible roots of a tree sporting a tyre swing, kids will delight in each tiny art work. The 10cm x 13cm book has a very sturdy cover and sheltering box, but I think it needs to be a thoughtful gift for a child who will appreciate it and take care of it.

The Amazing Monster Detectoscope

The Amazing Monster Detectoscope is a children’s picture book by Graeme Base, published by Penguin (2017.) RRP: $Au 29.99 HB.

From the publisher:

When our hero uses his Amazing Monster DetectoScope he finds that the house is infested with monsters! Can he find the courage to face his fears? This whimsical take on facing childhood fears features intricate paper engineering and a whole host of hilariously hideous beasties lying in wait beyond the DetectoScope viewfinder.

A combination of the famous creator of Animalia, a theme like monster detection and intriguing paper engineering makes this children’s picture book an ideal gift for youngsters. The paper engineering is sturdy enough to take respectful handling. It consists of a circle on each double thickness page with a slider on the circumference. When you move the slider, the circle segments slide to reveal a new picture, implying the detectoscope has done its work of detecting monsters. Base has written each encounter with a monster in rhyming couplets, and of course his art work is both atmospheric and fantastic. Kids will enjoy the mild scariness and rejoice when the doggy hero shows those nasty monsters what’s what.

The Wunderling

The Wunderling is a novel by Mira Bartók, published by Walker Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB.

The Wunderling is a story about the groundlings, young creatures part-animal, part-human who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. The home is dreadful, a dreary place made worse by Miss Carbunkle’s precepts. Mottos like “Why Reach for the Stars When the Stars are Out of Reach?” and “Know your Place! It’s at the Bottom!” adorn dingy grey walls, and any form of singing or humming is prohibited. But the misery changes for young Number Thirteen when he meets his first true friend, Trinket, and she gives him not only a proper name, Arthur, but a chance to escape to the outside world.

This children’s novel is huge at 464 pages and has all the hallmarks of a classic. It is set in a Dickensian world, and written in an active, yet descriptive style that grabs you from the start. Fox 2000 has already bought the film rights and I hope I get to see how my own imagination and the director’s vision mesh or differ. I am recommending it to people wanting to buy a book that will last for ages. I think good readers of 10+ will manage it independently, but I believe it makes a wonderful gift for a whole family, including kids 5 - 9. I can see that family now, worn out by festivities and gathered in a comfy place to listen to Mum or Dad read it aloud. I loved reading it, and remembering the huge impact that meaty books like Winnie the Pooh and The Swiss Family Robinson had on my young life!

Pirates Magnified

Pirates Magnified was written by David Long, illustrated by Harry Bloom and published by Wide Eyed, imprint of Quarto UK. (2017.) RRP: $Au 27.99 HB

From the publisher:

Ahoy shipmate! Grab your magnifying glass and seek out history's most notorious pirates in this swashbuckling search-and-find adventure, packed with over 200 things to spot! Explore the lives of 10 real pirates and learn about life on the high seas, whilst using the free magnifying glass to spot more than 200 pirate-themed items in each eye-boggling illustration. Kids will have fun using the magnifying glass to search whilst learning about real life pirates in this seafaring adventure!

A magnifying glass isn’t really a toy, but it’s definitely a good idea when your goal is to search incredibly detailed illustrations. Pirates Magnified has a 3x magnifying glass neatly ensconced in the front cover. There is lots of learning here inside a theme kids are definitely drawn to, but there’s a whole heap of fun too because of the challenges to locate specific items. Long writes with authority about real pirates, both men and women, and uses language kids will understand. Bloom has created an absolute visual feast with cut-aways, humorous scenes and a rogue’s gallery. I am definitely recommending this book to libraries too, as I know so many youngsters who will both adore, and pore over it!

Explanatorium of Nature

Explanatorium of Nature is by DK Books. RRP: $Au 45.00 HB.

From the publisher:

Jaw-dropping, up-close photography shows the natural world and animals as you've never seen it before.

From fruit to flowers, from shells to sharks, from ants to elephants, this extraordinary new encyclopedia will keep animal and nature enthusiasts aged 9 and over, utterly absorbed by amazing, close-up images.

DK Books has always been my publisher of choice when it comes to stunning visuals in non-fiction. Explantorium of Nature has an instantly appealing cover as you can see - where a chameleon seems ready to leap out at the reader! Inside there are close-ups taken with infrared and ultraviolet, cross sections, macro pics - in short, a world of vibrant detail to engage us.

Aside from the fantastic photography which I believe will appeal to readers young and old, I recommend this book because of the focus on how things in the natural world actually work. Encyclopaedic volumes can be fascinating, but sometimes their breadth is almost overwhelming. Parents with youngsters who want to know “How?” and “Why” will love the way Explanatorium of Nature examines topics like types of bird feet, how bats work, how fish reproduce, how spider silk works.

Although many children 5-9 won’t be able to read the text unaided, please don’t think this means the book wouldn’t make a suitable gift for them. It’s one of those books that make a great gift for the whole family, serving as both a reference book, a coffee table book for browsing, or even a book to work through during a read-aloud. Adults may need to read kids a summarised version of a text snippet, or just share the main facts - even just look at the pictures together and identify the species. The important thing is: here’s a chance to share the way reading can inform as well as entertain with kids who have a boundless curiosity about and enthusiasm for the natural world.


Find more books for younger kids in Reviews: Recent Children’s Picture Books about Animals 2017, Recently Published Children’s Picture Books 2017 (2),  and Recently Published Children’s Picture Books 2017 (3).

If you’re looking for recently published books for older readers, check out Recommended Books for Older Readers 2017 (1) and Recommended Books for Older Readers (2).

If you’d like to find collections of children’s picture books that focus on a certain theme, go to my Listly page.

Clicking on Reviews in the right sidebar means you can scroll through all my reviews, or check out all reviews at a glance on my Pinterest Book Review board.

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