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Children’s books that would make good gifts

An old saw observes that “a book is a gift you can open again and again” — which happens, happily, to be true. Here are a few recent wintry offerings, some with holiday overtones and others that would make exquisite presents any time of the year.

On Christmas Eve the king spots a bolt of Christmas-y, soft, “beautiful bright-red cloth” and decides to have a cloak made for the princess. The royal tailors bundle up the scraps and leave them on the back door, where Jenny, the kitchen maid, takes them home to sew a Christmas jacket for her mother. She sets her scraps out, and Bertie Badger makes a bright red cap for his papa — and so it goes, in ever-decreasing sizes and ever-increasing circles of generosity. (The last “tiny scrap of cloth” goes to a mouse’s son, for a scarf.)

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Christmas is, of course, a time of rampant giving and receiving — so the best time to remember the needs of others. Without an instant’s preaching, “Just Right for Christmas” is in fact just right for Christmas. British author Birdie Black writes with lively simplicity. I’d have wished for richer, more jewel-like illustrations for this book, but Rosalind Beardshaw’s cheery mixed-media pictures are friendly, cartoon-like, and appealing for younger readers.

This lively retelling of a classic Aesop’s fable is set in the 1930s at Christmas time, giving “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” new elegance and a subtle holiday twist. The book is gorgeous, both in prose and in its detailed, super-sized images. The country mouse is content, at first. “He knew the insect-filled fields of summer and the rich, ripe orchards of autumn.” But he also knows “the aching hunger of a long, cold winter” and falls prey to the tempting promises of the high life from his “fine, sleek city mouse” cousin. So he hitches a ride to glamorous Manhattan. There he rides an elevator, feasts on haute cuisine — and learns the dangers and anxieties of big-city living, mostly in the form of a lively pug dog in a party hat.

I wish that Ward had spent a bit more time and energy on her illustrations of the city. We nearly bypass Manhattan and its lit skyscrapers — they earn a single double-spread — for her heart is clearly in the rural beauties. Nonetheless, this is one very beautiful book.

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As a reader and mother, let me admit that I don’t shop soley for holiday-related books. I also search for books-as-toys, knowing they often will be most gladly received at holiday time — especially those that also happen to be both good books and toys. Dan Waddell’s witty “How To Be a Detective” perfectly fits the bill. It takes the young reader, step by step, through the skills and tricks necessary for any good detective — the importance of a good disguise, how to search for clues, how to analyze a crime scene, and the top 10 rules of surveillance, among others.

All of this information is presented in lively, often comical prose (“leave your green-and-orange striped hat at home”) within a totally kid-friendly format, with fold-out booklets, lift-the-flap tips, and some nifty extras, including a real ink pad, poster, and periscope kit. Even the detective tools are geared toward kids: how to dust for fingerprints using hot cocoa mix. Jim Smith’s cartoonish illustrations play along nicely, featuring expressive doodles, Sherlock Holmes cap-wearing dogs, and witty cartoon bubbles at every turn.

I can’t think of a finer holiday gift than the National Geographic “Book of Animal Poetry,” edited by J. Patrick Lewis, the US children’s poet laureate. This large, generously illustrated book provides a feast for the eye and the animal-loving heart. Among the poems presented are favorites by famous poets, including Frost, Dickinson, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, as well as fine surprises from newer and lesser-known poets. It is cleverly divided into sections like “the big ones,” “the little ones,” “the winged ones,” and “the strange ones.” Diverse cultures are well represented, and poetic forms range from the strictly rhymed to the very free. One little gem is an anonymous haiku: “Frantic sandpiper/high tides erasing/her footnotes.” Naturalists and budding poets of all ages will treasure it equally.

“Spirit Seeker” tells the moving story of jazz great John Coltrane’s musical and spiritual journey. Music and religion were the twin foundations of Coltrane’s life — both his parents were skilled musicians, both his grandfathers were preachers. He grew up in his maternal grandfather’s house, surrounded by extended loving family. “Life,” writes author Gary Golio, “was like a little slice of heaven.” When he was only 12, John lost his father and grandfather; soon after, an uncle and his grandmother were gone. Forced on hard times, the family split up and by age 15, John Coltrane was on his own. “Spirit Seeker” illuminates his struggle to emerge as an artist and a believer, fighting against loneliness, alcohol, and drug abuse. He always remembered his grandfather’s preaching, “the power of the Spirit to guide and heal each human being — no matter what.” Rudy Gutierrez’s paintings provide a rich and layered harmony for Golio’s poetic text. This picture book pushes the boundaries of the form, in the depth and complexity of its hero, the sophisticated imagery of its art, and the grandeur of its message.

Many children in my generation came to Helen Keller’s life story by way of the Academy Award-winning movie, “The Miracle Worker.” A new generation may find their way through “Annie and Helen, ” the fine new picture biography by Deborah Hopkinson and Raul Colón. It tells the story of a girl, deaf and blind, who enters the wider world, thanks to her own ferocious will and the dedication of her remarkable teacher, Annie Sullivan. “Annie knew how Helen must feel. Ever since Annie was a girl, she’d had a painful eye disease, and she had been partly blind until an operation helped her see.” “Annie and Helen” quotes directly from Annie’s letters about Helen — “During our walks she keeps up a continual spelling, and delights to accompany it with actions such as skipping, hopping, jumping” — and ends with Helen’s first letter home. Colón’s illustrations are gentle and realistic, matching Hopkinson’s straightforward prose. The endpapers show photographs of Helen and Annie, bringing them further to life. As the author’s note reminds us, “This story is about two extraordinary women.” Young readers cannot fail to be inspired.

JUST RIGHT FOR CHRISTMAS

By Birdie Black

Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw Nosy Crow, 32 pp., ages 3 and up, $15.99

THE TOWN MOUSE AND THE COUNTRY MOUSE: An Aesop Fable Retold and Illustrated

By Helen Ward

Templar, 48 pp, ages 4 and up, $16.99

HOW TO BE A DETECTIVE

By Dan Waddell

Illustrated by Jim Smith

Candlewick, 24 pp, ages 7 and up, $19.99

BOOK OF ANIMAL POETRY:200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!

Edited by J. Patrick Lewis

National Geographic, 192 pp., ages 4 and up, $24.95

SPIRIT SEEKER: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey

By Gary Golio

Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

Clarion, 48 pp., ages 9 and up, $17.99

ANNIE AND HELEN

By Deborah Hopkinson

Illustrated by Raul Colón

Schwartz & Wade, 48 pp., ages 4 and up, $17.99

Liz Rosenberg, the author of “Tyrannosaurus Dad,’’ teaches at Binghamton University. She can be reached at liz_rosenberg@ymail.com.
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