How to Select a Memorable Gift Book

(Cross posted at Dailykos)

I have been asked to post a list of books for the Holidays….or just general gift-giving… I don’t know if I can do that because the list would really be very long and the number of categories would be really diverse

I am a little out-of-date since I have neglected reading the books my students read (being retired, I have no students but I am active in a couple of organizations that promote literature and literacy). So now, I concentrate on books for ME!!!! Unfortunately, they seem to have taken a current events and political nature and are thoroughly depressing and I can’t recommend them to anyone except people here.

As a Reading Teacher, my philosophy was that there is a book out there for everyone and no one should be afraid to read a book.After all, a book is not god….I know this is debatable, but not here.

So, I decided that, in order to find a book for the reluctant readers of the world, I needed to start reading those books, sometimes to the tune of 100 to 150 per year! (I don’t read anywhere near that now!) It was not as daunting as it sounds….Children’s Lit and Young Adult Lit were usually under 200 pages, often near 100 pages and the reading level was generally around the 5-th Grade level. (Most popular Adult novels – ie. Romance, Mystery, Adventure-Thriller-Spy type novels and Horror novels are written at the 6-th Grade level. That is why it is so easy for a person to read one in a day or two, even if it is 4 or 500 pages thick)

The advent of the huge, wordy, descriptive books has really turned a lot of slower readers off. That is why it has become more urgent for teachers and parents to find the book (or books) that will turn on youngsters to reading. There are several ways to select an appropriate book. The most popular is the “rule of thumb”.  

What is the “Rule of Thumb”? Take your hand…notice the thumb…hold it up…open the book well into the book (at least 50 pages or so),,,put your thumb down  on the page…read the page for as far as your whole thumb reaches. The rule says that if you can’t read that much of the book because there are too many hard words or the sentences are too confusing(too complex) then the book is too hard for your personal reading level.

The “Rule of Thumb” only selects an appropriate reading level. Another way to discover Reading Level is to look on the back cover toward the bottom (especially in Dell/Yearling books) and notice the number at the bottom written RL:4.7.  RL means Reading Level….IL means Interest Level. They measure different things. Older books contain these numbers, but in the last 8 or 10 years, publishers have stopped doing this.

I guess they didn’t want to stigmatize older readers who were being give “easy” books to read. Some people overdo everything! The RL or IL could also be found on the Publisher’s page after the Title page. Most companies have stopped doing this, which was sad, because it was a help to parents and teachers who wondered if a book was appropriate for a child. It was always intended as a suggestion, not a law.

A good book is the book a person reads and likes/loves.

When choosing a book select one that seems interesting, whether it is Title or Author or Picture on the cover. Then read the back cover (Some of my students would just try to rewrite the back cover as their book report! It was so funny to read these—some copied word-for-word and made spelling errors! I loved these! It told me a lot about my students!) But I got lazy—or was it more practical?—over the years. I dispensed with written book reports and tried other activities. I didn’t want to turn kids off to the act of reading because they couldn’t write well in English and I didn’t want them to copy passages without knowing what they were writing or what it had to do with the book.

Book talks seemed to work best….recommending a book to the class seemed to encourage others to read that particular book.

Reading Levels (which are fairly arbitrary anyway) of some popular books are:

Mouse and the Motorcycle =Grade 4

Ramona the Brave =Grade 4

Stuart Little =Grade 4

Charlotte’s Web =Grade 3

The Hobbit =Grade 9

Lord of the Rings =Grade 11

A Separate Peace =Grade 9

The Little Prince =Grade 5

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone =Grade 7

If you want to do a readability level on a Children’s book go to Fry’s Readability Graph:


Just remember—even Reading Levels change throughout a book so it is really subjective…but it helps with rule of thumb. There are also several different readability scales and lists, but the scale should be used only if you have a doubt as to whether a child can successfully read a book.

The best measure is Interest. Everyone prefers different genres at different times in their life. I always loved books about Science and nature as a kid. In High School and College I gravitated toward Science Fiction and Fantasy. (Ha, I read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy in 6 days between High School Graduation and College….I didn’t have much of a life.) Then I discovered Mystery and Adventure/Spy novels. Finally, I discovered Biography. Oh well, but I will read almost anything now…especially if there is a reason. I am reading the Oprah pick, Pillars of the Earth…It was on my list since I wanted to read the Banned Books List and have read most of them. (I guess it is banned because of the graphically brutal rape passages and the irreverence for the leaders of the church and religion. But since I am only on Chapter 9, there could be more)

For booklists for children check out the Newbery Books (the list is better now…some of the books, for a while, were dreadfully boring), the Caldecott Winners, and various other award winning books. The lists can be found on the ALA website : here

Now to the answer to the question: What books would you recommend? All of them! It just depends on your interests and inclinations.

Personally, when buying a book for a relative, I like to choose something they would not normally choose. Preferably something that is currently very popular with children at that age. Something that has really nice artwork so that it is interesting and intriguing. I am partial to the pop-up books right now. Particularly those done by Robert Sabuda, but the other ones, like the Star Wars pop-up are equally entertaining.

Fancy personal journals for girls in which they can place photos and concert tickets, etc. are good. Commemorative copies of the classics with beautiful artwork are another suggestion. I always remember a beautiful copy of Robin Hood that I used to look at as a child with plates by Wyeth. We lost that book when I was 3…our house burned down, but for some reason I remembered the pictures. I asked my mother about the pictures many years later and she was surprised I had remembered them. That is how I discovered the name of the artist.

I also recommend blank books. Where students can write, illustrate, create their own book. Bare Books has very reasonable blank books in several sizes for the creative student. I used to make the personal book a final project in my classes. I would buy a blank book for each student (125 of them) and give them suggestions. I even made books as an example. Sometimes the school even purchased the blank books for me! As a testament to the popularity of this idea, many teachers started doing projects with these books. But, for some reason, these teachers were lauded. I’ll never forget the administrator who came to me and suggested that I do a project like so-and-so who was so young and creative! I had been doing it for years, HA! And given her the idea…Administrators are so clueless! (It pays to advertise and brag about yourself.)

Anyway, the site for Bare Books is link

The prices are very reasonable. They used to be about 99 cents but now they are $1.50 to $2.00 for the popular sizes. When the students were done, I would cover them with clear or transparent contact paper. I would buy the roll at the grocery store. It is cheaper than buying the product that they advertise.

Since I used to deal with students who had low reading levels(about 4-th Grade) compared to the fact they were High School students, I would encourage them to read very high interest level books that dealt with what they were familiar. Murder mystery books by Jay Bennett used to be very popular. He writes with short sentences and very little descriptive passages so the boys really like his stuff…I don’t think he is too popular anymore…His Birthday Murderer was very popular about 10 years ago.

So many books are written for girls but, Vampire books seem to be the trend right now and fantasy books with faeries and dragons and magic. Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse are good. However, I found the subliminal message that women are incapable of making a good decision without “F—ing” up, disconcerting, but the kids don’t get that, so it is OK.  At least it gets them reading.

For low level students, Townsend Press has a very High Interest series that the students really like…The Bluford High Series of about 15 books. They are very readable and about 100 pages each. Perfect for the poorly motivated student. Once they get hooked on these, they discover reading isn’t so hard and move on to other books. If you are interested here is their website. And, the nice thing, the books are only a dollar! A perfect gift and so affordable, you can buy one for each of your students to read over the holidays! tp

Teachers have enormous power over students when choosing books. I discovered early that when one read a book to the class or had the whole class read a book together and discuss it with them, that was the book the students remembered best. Students would return, asking for the name of that book they read or where could they get a copy, and I would usually give them the book.

Some of the books that we read together that they liked:

Call It Courage, Sperry

Rag and Bone Shop, Cormier

House of the Scorpion, Farmer

The Little Prince, St. Exupery

Homeless Bird, Whelan

Monster, Myers

Holes, Sachar

Harry Potter, Rowling

Books( they were cheap) that I gave out for the Holidays that students really liked:

Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis

Snow Treasure, McSwigan

How to Eat Fried Worms, Rockwell

Sideways Stories From Wayside School., Sachar

Of course, relevancy is important and and so is currency. It is important that the book is current, or that a movie is coming out; all these spark interest in the students.

Which is why The Golden Compass is probably a good gift right now

To sum up, your own interest in the book, love of the book and the background you bring to understanding a book will make the difference. It tells its own story and it tells your story as well.


Skip to comment form

    • Temmoku on December 17, 2007 at 19:43
    • Martiki on December 17, 2007 at 21:10

    at the 6th grade level?  That doesn’t speak very well of our novel-reading adults.  Where is the challenge?

    • plf515 on December 18, 2007 at 01:40

    I had a what are you reading on ‘books to give and books to get’ a couple weeks ago: here

    As to readability – I used to check out some books readability.  I think one book I read got grade 23….or maybe 32….it was DENSE.

    • plf515 on December 18, 2007 at 01:48

    Dr. Seuss

    Books kossacks read when young:

    what were you reading?

    books for young progressives

    • plf515 on December 18, 2007 at 01:53

    All of Dr. Seuss

      various age levels, from 2 to 102

    Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson

     for the very young, but with profound ideas

    The Cruise of the Aardvark by Ogden Nash

     when you’re old enough to appreciate rhymes

    A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engel

      tweens, early teens and up

    To be a Slave by Julius Lester


    • pico on December 18, 2007 at 06:15

    when I was a teenager, I really loved the sci fi novels of John Christopher.  Christopher was a novelist who felt that young adult fiction was pretty vapid, so he applied his complex characterizations to teen lit, with fantastic results.  They’re very easy to read, but not so easy to pin down.  He scored his biggest success with the tripod trilogy (beginning with The White Mountains), but I’m a huge huge huge fan of his post-apocalyptic Empty World.   He spends the first half building this incredible loneliness around an emotionally stunted hero, only to shift into a surprising rehash of Sartre’s No Exit!  It’s awesome, it’s complex, and it’s nonetheless kept at a very brisk, readable level.  

    What really drew me to his novels were his heroes: never the smartest, strongest, or most resourceful characters in the book, which makes them ideal sympathetic narrators.  The hero of Empty World even outright laments the fact that someone smarter than he didn’t survive, instead.  The plot curve in that book isn’t tied to narrative at all, but to his slowly-developing sense of maturity.  Which I consider a more valuable reading experience than the usual 1,2,3.

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