Heaven, Earth (and Water), Sun Ra and the Cat’s Meow

A hipster’s gift guide to children’s books

What many of us want to know at this time of year is: What new or forgotten children’s book can I buy for my grandchildren or nieces or nephews that their parents have not already discovered? How can I be the special grandparent, the better aunt, the most-loved uncle who has taken the time and energy to find the one book that will change the young person’s life forever?

We can help. Perhaps we can make you the family friend who will never be forgotten because you turned a young mind in the exact direction it needed to go at just the right time with the perfect book. It happens, and it might happen with these gems:

Oh No, Astro!, by Matt Roeser (Author),  and Brad Woodard (Illustrator). Simon & Schuster, 2016. $18. Unlike all the other asteroids with their constant banging around, Astro is happy drifting in space minding his own business, thank you very much. So you can imagine his dismay when a passing satellite rudely knocks him on a collision course for earth. Hilarious wit that will have adults laughing as much as their kids, plus cool science facts, equals your giving this book to your favorite kids this holiday. Their parents will thank you too when they’re reading it out loud for the millionth time. 

Under Water, Under Earth, by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski. Big Picture Press, 2016. $35.

We all know that child whose curiosity is downright insatiable. The one drawn toward the weird. The one who wants to know everything about everything, and now, with this book, you will be their holiday hero. Open the Under Water side of the book, and learn (in a level of detail that will have adults stealing this book when the kids aren’t looking) about oceans, lakes, fish, coral reefs, hydro physics, submarines, and much more. Then, flip the book over to Under Earth and read about everything subterranean from tectonics to archaeology, from plant root networks to caves and beyond. On second thought, forget the kids. You might want this one for yourself!  

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy. Simon & Schuster, 2016. $18. I Dissent is the best gift for the determined, young doers in your life. As they read Ginsburg’s life story they’ll learn about fighting against tough odds for what they believe in. They’ll see the struggles of a minority who went after her dreams and came out on top to do some good. Most importantly, they’ll learn the power in action and constructive debate. Great content topped off with beautiful illustrations mean that no one will dissent your status as the cool, conscientious relative this holiday.

Of course there are plenty of forgotten classics to consider. But these choices must be made delicately. Too obvious — The Cat in the Hat, for example — and you’ll be lumped in with the rest of the boring grownups. Too wordy and adult —  The Giving Tree — and it’ll sit there unread.

Fictional children meeting bad ends are endlessly entertaining to children. Or, maybe our children. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to fall in love with Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, (Houghton Mifflin. $10), an abecedarium in which each child (A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears . . .) departs our earthly plane in their own idiosyncratic way. Gorey’s signature drawings are gothic and droll, and the rhymes make the book great for reading aloud. Maybe not right before bed, though. Children who grow up with this book are virtually guaranteed to attend poetry readings later in life, clad in black, to read poems about their dead cat.

“Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn. Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.  And yet. If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much. Let’s say he did come from Saturn.” Thus begins Chris Raschka’s wonderful biography for children, The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra (Candlewick Press, 2014. $16). Sun Ra was a progressive jazz musician and Raschka follows his development by concentrating on collaboration, creativity and joy. The joy of creating music leaps from the jittery, colorful illustrations, which seem to want to leap from the page and dance across the room. Raschka has also written and illustrated books on Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane so you can introduce the books along with the music.

And finally, you’ll be the coolest cat in the clowder if you lay upon the young kittens Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (Puffin Books, $8). Illustrated in dark red, vibrant yellow and black, the book is striking and memorable visually, but its real appeal lies in a love of absurdity and an undeniable love of life. A life changer, this one, and you’ll be forever identified with it in the adoring eyes of the family litter.


December 6: Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina/ Young Readers Edition, by Misty Copeland. (Aladdin, $18). For the dancer in the family — or for anyone who’s driven to physical extremes.

December 6: The Secret Life of Squirrels: A Love Story, by Nancy Rose (Little, Brown, $17). Two squirrels fall in love in a bookstore.

December 6: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis (Norton, $29). OK, not a children’s book, but perhaps the best book with a December release.

December 13: Chicken Story Time, by Sandy Asher (Dial Books, $17.99). Story time at the library was never so much fun.  OH

Scuppernong Bookshelf was written by Shannon Jones, Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell.

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