If your family shares a tradition of "one gift on Christmas Eve" or if you expect to hit a party or two where some of the guests are still of the junior variety this year, there's no better gift than a really good book. And by that, of course, I mean a really good book- one little ones can turn the pages of after the read-aloud is over, one a kid who loves to read can sink into on Christmas afternoon or one that brings kids who fall into words less easily to gather around the coffee table and pour over the pictures.
I like to give books in a pack of two: a holiday theme for that festive touch, and another for less wonderful times of the year. The classic holiday read aloud is, of course, The Night Before Christmas , and you can get a version to suit any family's style: Mary Engelbrett for the Country Living subscriber, Jan Brett for the Victorian, Niroot Puttapipat's fantastic paper-cut version for the Modernist, and, for the trendy, the Scanimation/Animotion version , with illustrations that change as the pages move, like those from recent hit books Gallop! If you've already overdosed on Clement C. Moore, you might want to join Lauren Thompson's Santa Claus in The Christmas Magic (with illustrations from the wonderful Jon Muth) as he gazes into the sky with his packed sleigh, waiting for said magic to arrive. For the family who prefers to have some deep thoughts to chew on while leaving out the cookies for Santa (don't forget, the mustached guy needs a straw for his milk!), Maya Angelou offers Amazing Peace . The illustrations are wonderful but the poetry ("into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters") might leave you a little wistful for the "little old driver, so lively and quick" you so cavalierly rejected a few book choices ago. Or let your Christmas magic be light with The Gingerbread Pirates , a charmer with a Santa cameo.
Older kids need holiday books, too, and if your picture-book shelf is full, younger grade-schoolers will love the re-issue of Madeleine L'Engle's The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas (An Austin Family Story). Their mothers may sneak in and read it after bedtime, too. Look for The Flight of the Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission in a coffee-table quality 15th-anniversary version. There's The Gift of the Magi (and if you haven't read that, how will you ever be able to instantly perceive the plot of the latest ABC Family Christmas movie?).
As for the second book, another book by the same illustrator makes a nice package (Jan Brett's The Mitten , or Mary Engelbrett's Fairy Tales ). For the reader, you can't go wrong with a favorite from your own childhood (maybe A Wrinkle in Time , The Great Brain , Half Magic, or the Four Story Mistake ). They're less likely to have come across them in their own library visits. Slip mom a copy of Prudent Advice: Lessons for My Baby Daughter (A Life List for Every Woman ) , which offers snippets of the kind of practical wisdom that anyone would like to have around the house (like "wear a costume every chance you get").
But how about the kind of book that redefines books, that makes a kid (or an adult) take in a breath and reach for a glossy page? There's The Earth from Above , with fantastic photographs of just that, Star Wars: A Visual Chronicle or the clever The Elements (which goes, of course, with the iPad app). Their are typically half-a-dozen coffee table books of photos of Earth from space, or trains, or telescopes, or travel, or cars, and such in the Bargain Book section that would delight a kid with a fascination or an interest, and they're all easy to wrap and available at the last possible minute before the stores close Friday night.