The best children’s books to give as gifts for the holidays

collage of 6 kids books
MPR News host Angela Davis talks with a bookseller and a children’s librarian about the best children’s books of 2023 to give as gifts during the holidays.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

If you give a child a book, you give them a window to the world.  

Books can take us beyond our families and communities to experience a bit of other people’s joys and sorrows.  

They can explain the natural world right around us and also carry us to far away and fantastic places. Books bring the past to life and help us imagine future possibilities.  

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with Holly Weinkauf, the owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, and Lisa Von Drasek, a librarian and curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries, about sharing books with the kids in our lives and the best children’s books of 2023 to give as gifts during the holidays.  

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women in broadcast studio surrounded by books
MPR News host Angela Davis (left) talks about children's books with Holly Weinkauf and Lisa Von Drasek in an MPR News studio in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Maja Beckstrom | MPR News

Here are some of the titles they suggested:

‘The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner’ by Marissa Moss

the woman who split the atom
‘The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner’ by Marissa Moss.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's an odd book that you wouldn't ordinarily pick up for a gift but I think it is great for that late middle grade,” Von Drasek said. “It's a page-turner adventure biography” about Lise Meitner, a physicist who helped discover nuclear fission.

‘Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend’ by Noah Van Sciver, Marlena Myles and Lee Francis IV

paul bunyan the invention of an american legend
"Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend" by Noah Van Sciver, Marlena Myles and Lee Francis IV.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

This book “tells the true story of Paul Bunyan. It's not an original tall tale passed from generation to generation. It was invented by a lumbering company in an advertising campaign. And this book has a lot of authors on the cover because so many people contributed to it,” Von Drasek said.

“One of those all-ages things where you could read aloud to and with a fourth grader, but also has so much archival content for graduate students.”

‘Hidden Systems’ by Dan Nott

hidden systems
"Hidden Systems" by Dan Nott.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“They're called hidden systems because they're the things we take for granted, we don't think about at all until they aren't working: the Internet, water, electricity. But not only does Dan Nott, the author, talk about how they work, he talks about the context of why they were created and the inequalities in that development, but then also talks about possibilities of new ways of thinking for a better future,” Weinkauf said.

‘A First Time for Everything’ by Dan Santat

a first time for everything
"A First Time for Everything" by Dan Santat.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's the story about him going from being invisible to invincible, and it just chronicles some of those typical things in middle school. You know, like a first crush, he takes a big trip, being encouraged by his parents. A lot of those middle school dramas that we all go through are in his memoir,” Weinkauf said.

‘Duel’ by Jessixa Bagley

duel
"Duel" by Jessixa Bagley.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's a story of sibling rivalry shortly after their dad has died. There's sibling rivalry, there’s grief, but all with the backdrop of fencing. And it's just a really interesting, complex but fun middle-grade graphic novel,” Weinkauf said.

‘Big’ by Vashti Harrison

big
"Big" by Vashti Harrison.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It’s about a little girl who just seems to be too big for her surroundings — seems is the operative word — and other people are telling her who she is in the world. It's a wonderfully paced book. My husband used to make fun of me, I'd say, ‘These illustrations are delicious!’ This is a book you want to hug and keep with you and celebrate. It's serious, it's got a lot of depth to it, but any six-year-old will just adore it,” Von Drasek said.

‘If I Was a Horse’ by Sophie Blackall

if i was a horse
"If I Was a Horse" by Sophie Blackall.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“On each page, there's just so much to look at, to talk about,” Weinkauf said.

“The book is so developmentally perfect. So trust your bookseller, trust your librarians and ask them for books for your child, because they will make that match,” Von Drasek continued.

‘There Was a Party for Langston’ by Jason Reynolds

there was a party for langston
"There Was a Party for Langston" by Jason Reynolds.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“This is such a fun, joyful celebration of Langston Hughes. There’s so much fun with words in this book, there's rhythm, it's a book you read and you want to move,” Weinkauf said.

“What a great book not just for kids but for all of us. There are nods to so many great contributors to our literature and it's just a great way to celebrate all of that.”

‘I’m from’ by Gary R. Gray Jr

im from book
"I’m from" by Gary R. Gray Jr.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“Not only is it a fabulous read aloud and unbelievably gorgeous pictures and emotional content, but you certainly can see this as a writing prompt for a classroom activity or home and intergenerational — ‘Daddy, where are you from? Grandpa, where are you from?,” Von Drasek said.

‘Can't Nobody Make a Sweet Potato Pie Like Our Mama!’ by Rose McGee

cant nobody make a sweet potato pie like our mama
"Can't Nobody Make a Sweet Potato Pie Like Our Mama!" by Rose McGee.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's a book about two grandchildren just watching her generosity, her kindness and the comfort she provides as she is sharing her sweet potato pies with the community. And as we're moving into a holiday full of food and family, what a great book to share about the importance of sharing with others and bringing comfort to others,” Weinkauf said.

‘A Very Cranky Book’ by Angela DiTerlizzi

a very cranky book
"A Very Cranky Book" by  Angela DiTerlizzi.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“The book is basically saying: ‘Get out of here. I don't want to be read. Go ride a bike, go do something else. Why are you bothering me?’ It’s so much fun. Who doesn't like to laugh, right?,” Von Drasek said.

‘How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?’ by Mac Barnett

how does santa go down the chimney
"How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?" by Mac Barnett
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It is all the speculations about: How does Santa do it? And each speculation gets more and more hilarious, ridiculous,” Weinkauf said. “It is for ages three and up, but really picture books are for all ages.”

‘Skating Wild on an Inland Sea’ by Jean E. Pendziwol

skating wild on an inland sea
"Skating Wild on an Inland Sea" by Jean E. Pendziwol.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“This is about Lake Superior in winter time. About the beauty, the magic and the power,” Weinkauf said.

‘We Are Branches’ by Joyce Sidman

we are branches
"We Are Branches" by Joyce Sidman.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's from the point of view of the natural objects,” Von Drasek said.

“The author talks about all the kinds of branches that make life possible,” Weinkauf continued.

‘The Eyes and the Impossible’ by Dave Eggers

the eyes and the impossible
"The Eyes and the Impossible" by Dave Eggers.
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“It's a story told through a dog's perspective, also funny. It's a chapter book and it would make a great family read-aloud. The dog’s perspective is just so smart, so insightful and often very funny,” Weinkauf said.

‘Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods’ by Grace Lin

chinese menu
"Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods" by Grace Lin
Courtesy of Red Balloon Bookshop

“Everything you're thinking about when you think about Chinese food in America. Where does this stuff come from? Is it actually Chinese? What do we love about it?,” Von Drasek said.

Bonus list: Your book suggestions

Our listeners called in or sent us a message with their personal children's book recommendations:

  • “Hush Hush, Forest” and “Wake Up, Island” by local author Mary Casanova, illustrated by Minnesota artist Nick Wroblewski. — Erin in Preston.

  • “Rosie and the Hobby Farm” by Kolina Cicero, illustrated by Khoa Le. — Kolina in Plymouth.

  • “Violet the Snowgirl: A Story of Loss and Healing” by Lisa Walsh. — Larry in Wisconsin.

  • “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor. — Felicia in Northfield.

  • “Takoza: Walks With the Blue Moon Girl” by Tara Perron, a Dakota and Minnesota author. — Katie in St. Paul.

  • “The Black Book of Colors” by Menena Cottin. — Cynthia in Amory, Wis.

  • “Thank you, Omu!” by Oge Mora — Osiel in Chaska.

  • “Remarkable Rose” by Ellie Roscher, illustrated by Lily Banning — Anonymous caller.

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