Skip to content

Beyond Fairy Tales: Absorbing volumes that will hold the attention of children long past the holidays

Wall Street Journal:

It’s hard to blame the children’s-book business for falling into the same thrall as the movie industry in desperately seeking the Next Big Thing. With the conclusion of the Harry Potter saga this summer, practically every other new novel is a fantasy hoping to draw in the same millions of young readers. Similarly, this year’s stupendously popular “The Dangerous Book for Boys” arrived quite suddenly in the national consciousness. Like Harry, it swiftly sparked innumerable imitators, also-rans and, inevitably, “The Daring Book for Girls.”

The trouble is that smash hits can’t necessarily be designed, rolled out by the length, and cut to order. But that’s not stopping publishers from trying, and for holiday gifts this year there’s an abundance of large, glossy and wonderfully absorbing books that are perfect for enjoying by the fire once the maniacal flush of acquisitiveness has faded from the children’s faces, and everyone is ready to settle down.

“Do Not Open” (Dorling Kindersley, $24.99) comes peeking out from between the bars of its own little prison door and will, of course, make children immediately ignore the warning of its title. Inside is “an encyclopedia of the world’s best-kept secrets,” including the phenomenon of people spontaneously bursting into flame, the Bermuda triangle, alchemy, brainwashing, and what’s so neat about Fibonacci numbers. This is a good bet for pre- (and full) teens.

And now, gift-wrapped under the tree -- Soviet totalitarianism. Yet Peter Sis’s memoir of his boyhood in Czechoslovakia -- “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18) is an excellent introduction for even young children to Cold War realities in Soviet-occupied Europe. The brilliant thing about Mr. Sis’s intricate cartoon drawings is their ability to show something menacing -- political oppression -- as puny and false. The front cover conveys this idea: A smiling baby boy sits inside a star-shaped brick wall, penned in like everyone else behind the Iron Curtain, yet it’s clear that he will grow out of his confinement. Older children, who deserve to know the full story, can read it themselves. Ages 10 and up.

One good thing about visual masters of centuries past: You don’t have to pay them royalties. Inexpensive sources have led to an abundance of lovely art volumes for the young, down to thick board books of Matisse and Vermeer for babies to chew on. In contrast, “The Art Book for Children: Book Two” (Phaidon, $19.95) keeps things sophisticated. It follows Book One, published in 2005. These pages will expose children from age 6 upwards to work of many styles -- Dutch Old Masters, Impressionists, Pre-Raphaelites, Pointillists, Surrealists -- while the chatty text covers each work and invites children to think about how paintings and sculpture evoke the reactions they do.

Parents may give “Golden Legacy” by Leonard S. Marcus (Random House, $40) to their children and then gobble it up themselves. It’s for any former child who ever pored over the illustrations in the Little Golden Books. Strictly speaking, this is a history of the Golden Books imprint. But many of the best-beloved children’s book illustrators and authors of the 20th century populate the Golden story -- Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, Richard Scarry, Gustaf Tenggren, Eloise Wilkins and others -- and the vivid reproductions of Golden illustrations here are superb, with each page yielding more nostalgic pleasure than the one before.

It seems like every family has a subversive uncle or godparent who rejoices in giving gifts that parents would never, ever buy. “The Encyclopedia of Immaturity” (Klutz, $19.95) is ideal for this roguish demographic. Starting with the mustachioed Mona Lisa on the cover, the glossy pages of this compendium of juvenile goofiness explain how to ride a unicycle, fake a horribly moist sneeze, trick your friend into drinking ketchup, force marshmallows into mortal combat (in a toothpick duel, in the microwave), and calculate your age in fly-years. Parents may groan. Young rascals will love it.