Seasoned librarian shares best book picks for holiday gifts

For some folks, the an impersonal gift card just won’t do this holiday season. But with less than a month until Christmas, time is shorter than one of Santa’s elves to make those personal selections.

Jane Sharpe, associate librarian emerita of McDaniel College, reviewed what she considers the best new books for holiday gifting during a recent lunch event at the college known as Books Sandwiched In.


“We’re bombarded by best-sellers, Amazon, blogs, Goodreads and things like that,” she said. “So I try to get the thing you might have missed in the bookstore.”

Each of the 37 titles Sharpe recommends was published in 2017, and there are selections for all ages and levels of reader, from picture books to cookbooks to thick, non-fiction tomes. Two of the selections are from local authors, Lois Szymanski and Carolyn Seabolt.


Sharpe presented all of her selections to an audience on Nov. 16 in the McDaniel Lounge.

“It’s a fun thing every year,” said audience member Betty Houck, of Eldersburg. “It starts off the holidays.”

Sharpe began reading this year’s selections in September — a late start by her account.

“My friends ask me, “What are you doing?’” she said. “[And I reply,] ‘I’m reading, I’m reading.’”


Not every book in her stack makes the final cut. She reads with an audience in mind, and even if she personally enjoyed a title, sometimes it won’t make it onto the recommended list, a fate that befell about 15 books this season.

“It really kills me when I read a 500-page, 600-page book and think, ‘I liked it, I liked the premise, but there are very few people who would like it,’” she said.

The original format of Books Sandwiched In started 26 years ago at McDaniel. A student or staff member would review a single book at lunchtime. The first event started with three or four book recommendations for holiday gift-giving, and since then Sharpe has taken the helm and upped the ante.

“I just didn’t want to see it go away. So I offered to do a December [review] on books for holiday gifts, and 26 years later, it’s still going on,” she said.

She buys some titles and borrows some from the public library. Many of her selections, she said, are ones she has purchased as gifts for her own family members.

Though the reading takes up a lot of time each year, Sharpe values the lessons she learns from reading books that she might not otherwise. Most years, themes emerge organically from the selections. This year, science, religion, forgiveness and tolerance were threads.

She closed her presentation at McDaniel with a blessing for those gathered:

“Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good book.”

Sharpe’s literary gift list

1. “Origin” - Brown, Dan ISBN 978-0385514231

Sharpe said this art and philosophy-filled thriller was a favorite of her and her husband.

2. “A Column of Fire” - Follett, Ken ISBN 978-0525954972

3. “The Weight of Ink” - Kadish, Rachel ISBN 978-0544866461

Sharpe said this historical fiction about a researcher and a set of mysterious manuscripts takes some time to chew through and ponder.

4. “The Life she was Given” - Wiseman, Ellen Marie ISBN 978-1617734496

5. “The Secret, Book & Scone Society” - Adams, Ellery ISBN 978-1496712370

This mystery about four “weird women” and a therapeutic bookshop reminds Sharpe of Angela Lansbury and will have you thinking about forgiveness, community and sisterhood.

6. “The Noel Diary” - Evans, Richard Paul ISBN 978-1501172038

7. “Mr. Dickens and his Carol: a Novel of Christmas Past” - Silva, Samantha ISBN 978-1250154040

8. “12 Days at Bleakly Manor” - Griep, Michelle ISBN 978-1683222583

Sharpe called this cheeky mystery “Dickens meets ‘And then there were none.’”

9. “Leonardo da Vinci” - Isaacson, Walter ISBN 978-1501139154

10. “Ali: A Life” - Eig, Jonathan ISBN 978-0544435247

11. “Sisters First: Stories from our Wild and Wonderful Life” - Hager, Jenna Bush & Bush, Barbara Pierce ISBN 978-1538711415

12. “Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence” - O’Reilly, Bill with Martin Dugard ISBN 978-1627790642

Sharpe said no matter what you think of O’Reilly, his writing takes the sugarcoat off of history and shows the real brutality of war.

13. “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For” - McCullough, David ISBN 978-1501174216

14. “The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home” - Kiernan, Denise ISBN 978-1476794044

Sharpe called this southern tale “Downton Abbey in Appalachia” as it explores the beating hearts that inhabited the Biltmore mansion.

15. “The Appalachian Trail: Hiking the People’s Path” - Smith, Bart, photographer ISBN 978-0847859177

16. “You Don't Look Your Age...and Other Fairy Tales” - Nevins, Sheila ISBN 978-1250111302

“She just tells it like it is,” Sharpe said of Nevins’ irreverent humor tome.

17. “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Come and Get It” - Drummond, Ree ISBN 978-0062225269

Sharpe appreciated how this cookbook has photographs with each step-by-step instruction.

18. “Celebrating Every Season with Six Sisters’ Stuff” - Six Sisters’ Stuff ISBN 978-1629723280

19. “Everything I need to Know About Family I Learned from a Little Golden Book” - Muldrow, Diane ISBN 978-0553538519

20. “A Christmas Carol: A Seek & Find Classics Book” - Dickens, Charles; retold by Sarah Powell; illus. Louise Piggott ISBN 978-1499806243

21. “Runny Babbit Returns: Another Billy Sook” - Silverstein, Shel ISBN 978-0062479396

22. “The Castle in the Mist” - Ephron, Amy ISBN 978-0399546983

This young-adult fantasy reminded Sharpe of “The Secret Garden” and teaches the importance of magic and dreams.

23. “Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race” - Grabenstein, Chris ISBN 978-0553536065

This book is one of a series that teaches kids library concepts through the quirky adventures of its protagonist.

24. “The Baby-Sitters Club: Dawn and the Impossible Three” - Martin, Amy M. ISBN 978-1338067118

This graphic novel retelling of the classic young-adult series drew in Sharpe, who had never read the originals.

25. “I am Sacagawea” - Meltzer, Brad; illus. Christopher Eliopoules ISBN 978-0525428534

26. “Real or Fake? 2” - Kreiger, Emily ISBN 978-1426327780


27. “Inside Out T. Rex” - Schatz, Dennis ISBN 978- 0760355336


This interactive book was one of Sharpe’s picks for young or reluctant readers.

28.” Lucky to Live in Maryland” - Jerome, Kate B. ISBN 978-0738527857

29. “Blue Sky White Stars - Naberhaus, Sarvinder; illus.Kadir Nelson ISBN 978-0803737006

This is an illustrated poem about America for children that Sharpe called “a beautiful book to sit and talk about.”

30. “Surfer Dude: The Legendary Stallion of Chincoteague” - Szymanski, Lois ISBN 978-0764353666

“Everything I’ve learned about Chincoteague, I’ve learned from Lois,” Sharpe said. This book covers themes of family and loss in the setting of the Virginia island famously inhabited by wild ponies.

31. “Oliver’s Travels” - Seabolt, Carolyn - ISBN 978-1604149814

32. “The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors” - Daywalt, Drew; illus. Adam Rex ISBN 978-0062438898

33. “Give Me Back my Book” - Foster, Travis & Long, Ethan ISBN 978-1452160405

34. “The Mermaid” - Brett, Jan ISBN 978-0399170720

Legendary illustrator and author Jan Brett is back with a mermaid-centered retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” that take inspiration from her travels in Okinawa, Japan.

35. “My Little World Touch and Feel: A Fun-filled Book of Learning” ISBN 978-1680105117

37. “Touch and Feel Winter” ISBN 978-1338161458

37. “Santa’s Sleigh” - Auerbach, Annie; illus. Robert Pagnoni ISBN 978-1438050003

Sharpe said this sleigh-shaped board book would look adorable sticking out of a stocking.