It's always a great time to give a book to a kid.
Scads of academic studies show that every book in a child's house improves their future academic success. And there's nothing better than watching a kid unwrap a gift and then spend half the afternoon reading it.
Here are a few recent books that excite the senses and exercise the mind.
•A boy shipwrecked on the crossing from Europe to America shares the latkes his mother packed for him with a polar bear in Eric Kimmel's "Simon and the Bear." In exchange, the bear keeps him warm and catches fish for him as he sings songs and tells her the Hanukkah story. (Disney-Hyperion, $16.99).
•Travel with Clara and her Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets in an exquisite new edition of "The Nutcracker" illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat. Luscious watercolors set off Puttapipat's signature super-detailed silhouettes, giving the book the look of an intricately crafted stage set. Spellbinding language makes this a marvelous Christmas read-aloud. (Candlewick Press, $19.99)
•A more contemporary Christmas story is told in Yasmeen Ismail's "Christmas for Greta and Gracie." Bossy big sister Greta has lots to say as she and Gracie prepare for the holiday. But the little sister finds that it's good to be quiet, too, as she creeps downstairs on Christmas Eve and meets the man of the hour himself. Ismail's loose, bright watercolors capture the clutter and excitement of the holiday season. (Nosy Crow, $15.99).
•A small boy explores his neighborhood in the snow, his brown face peeking from a bright-red hood. Seems like a simple idea for a picture book, right? But at the time of its publication, books for kids did not typically feature African-American children. "A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day" by Andrea Davis Pinkney uses sparkling verse and cheerful collage illustrations to celebrate the man who brought Peter to life. (Viking Books for Young Readers, $18.99)
Big books to share with little people
•Mother Goose rhymes: They're weirder than you may remember, but full of funny animals and silly wordplay just the same. Give a new parent the fine 20th-anniversary edition of "My Very First Mother Goose," edited by Iona Opie and profusely illustrated with winsome bunnies and geese by Rosemary Wells, and they may gain new respect for their baby's burbling nonsense. (Candlewick, $22.99)
•After all the presents have been unwrapped and put away, what's left to play with? The boxes! "Box" by Min Flyte, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw, uses flaps and foldouts to deliver surprises and ideas for imaginative play. It's a train! A theater! A castle! And, like a cardboard box, this book is sturdy enough for little hands. (Nosy Crow, $15.99)
•Here's an all-ages showstopper that kids will come back to again and again: "Megalopolis: And the Visitor from Outer Space" by Clea Dieudonne. The story of an alien visitor to a fabulous city is revealed vertically — the pages unfold outward, extending 10 feet! Tiny details and recurring characters encourage readers to concoct their own stories about the city's unique inhabitants. (Thames & Hudson, $24.95)
•Fantasy and gaming fans will enjoy "Dungeonology" by Matt Forbeck. The latest in the Ologies series introduces readers to the races and realms of Dungeons and Dragons by means of snarky commentary, intriguing foldouts and pop-ups, and classic fantasy illustration. My kids have been playing D&D for years, and you can bet this is going under our tree. (Candlewick, $24.99)
•Two little boys take "A Walk on the Wild Side" and meet animals both wild and tame all around the world. Author Louis Thomas delivers facts about 65 species in a cheerful, conversational tone, and his colorful watercolor illustrations are a little kooky and a lot of fun. (Francis Lincoln Children's Books, $19.99)
•Did you know that the latest class of NASA astronaut trainees is half female? Celebrate the science girl (or boy) on your list with "Destination: Space" by Christoph Englert and Tom Clohosy Cole. This oversized treasure uses cartoony illustrations in dramatic colors to explain astronomical phenomena. (Quarto, $22.99)
Activities for long winter days
•Head to the LEGO bin for the materials needed to make a zombie pencil holder, trophy deer head or a Minecraft paperweight. "Geeky LEGO Crafts" by David Scarfe is on my list for the nieces and nephews who are deep into plastic bricks. Bonus: They might make some of these craft items as Mother's or Father's Day presents! (No Starch Press, $19.95)
•I love a book with pencil puzzles and space to write your own story, and the very cool "Professor Astro Cat's Intergalactic Activity Book" by Zelda Turner and illustrator Ben Newman is a pleasure to look at and to hold — not to mention filled with interesting facts and intriguing activities. (Nobrow Press, $13.95)
•Cooking with kids is a great bonding experience, and an opportunity for them to learn about math, science, culture, nutrition, and safety. And then you get to eat! Look for "Big Meals for Little Hands" by Sebastien Guenard and Aladjidi Virginie. Classic French crowd-pleasers like poached pears, clafoutis, and deviled eggs are simplified for home preparation. (Nobrow Press, $17.95)
Big box sets
•Buying fiction for independent readers can be tricky — kids are much more likely to finish (or start) novels that they have selected themselves rather than books we suggest. Solve this problem with a fancy box set of a series they're already reading. New sets are available for Hilary McKay's Lulu books or the mythology-themed Heroes in Training series by Joan Holub.
•The Baby-Sitter's Club graphic novels, written by Ann Martin and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier are finally available in full color — look for the box set of all four. Fans of Jeffrey Brown's Jedi Academy graphic novels will appreciate his Darth Vader and Friends set. And for older readers, look for the Heroes of Olympus set by Rick Riordan or the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.
Not sure what your young person is reading? The booksellers at independent bookstores such as the Children's Bookstore, Red Canoe, or The Ivy Bookshop are experts in the field.
Give the gift of reading
Keep the giving going with a year-end donation to organizations that put free books into the hands of kids. Dads being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center get to read with their kids thanks to Turning Pages (familyreadingclub.com). Reading Partners (readingpartners.org) provides one-on-one tutoring to kids in Baltimore City public schools. And the Maryland Book Bank (marylandbookbank.org) works with community partners to distribute free books to kids in low-income families.
Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children's and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. She can be reached at email@example.com.