November has rolled around. Because I love Christmas, giving gifts, and of course books, I made a bookish gift guide to help you with all your present shopping.
Here’s the deal about this gift guide: everything in it, I’ve either read or used myself. I stuck to what I knew and liked, and the categories reflect that. My kids are still young, so if you’re looking for ideas for older kids, sadly they aren’t here, because I don’t want to recommend to you something that I have not read myself! Similarly, since I’m not a huge memoir or sci-fi reader, those categories do not appear. However, I love everything here and I think you and the person you are buying for will love them too.
I have also intentionally not included links in this gift selection. This lack is because you should, if you can, buy from your local bookstore! I like to avoid enriching Mr. Bezos further. I also like to buy used, and for that, I suggest either a local used bookstore (Bookmans in Arizona was always a font of delight for me), thriftbooks.com or biblio.com. Not everyone wants a used book, but I think it’s especially great for kids or cheap stocking stuffers! Let’s get started.
Have you read the same books aloud 800 times to your progeny, or someone else’s? Here are some books to freshen up that selection. Top left: Loved: The Lord’s Prayer, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated with lovely, tender beauty by Jago. My kids love all these books by Lloyd-Jones and Jago, but this one is my personal favorite. Top right: Good-Night, Owl! by Pat Hutchins. This is an oldie but goodie. The illustrations are delightful and retro, and every young kid will love the silly bird noises. Bottom: the Our Little Adventures collection by Tabitha Paige, an artist and certified speech specialist. These books are illustrated in Beatrix Potter fashion, with gorgeous little watercolors of animals doing things like going to the meadow or the farmers market (pictured). She writes them intentionally to include foundational words for young kids, and includes a list of fun activities in the back of each to encourage language acquisition. So fun!
This age is such a fun one to buy books for. You could probably wander into any bookstore and find success, but here’s a couple hints to start you off. Top left: Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. Each kid in my house, from the toddler to the first grader, is obsessed with anything Richard Scarry. This midcentury classic children’s writer should occupy a space on every bookshelf. His whimsical illustrations of animals in Busytown captivate my kids for hours. You could pick any one of his books in the Busytown series and have a happy kid. Top right: Read-Aloud Bible Stories by Ella K. Lindvall, illustrated by Kent Puckett. In my opinion, these are the best retellings of Jesus’s parables and other Bible stories for young kids. They are very simple, but capture the freshness and beauty of the gospels. Finally, on the bottom, a new book that my son is about to get for Christmas (don’t tell him!): Becoming a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery, pictures by Rebecca Green. Each chapter details what the author learned from a creature, examining different, small lessons of life. It’s darling and rejoices over the beauty of creation.
Alright, my oldest age group, and mostly aimed toward girls (or boys, no discrimination here, but I realize these won’t be every boy’s cup of tea). Top right: the gorgeous little semi-fairy-tale, Margaret’s Unicorn, by Briony May-Smith. A lonely little girl in Scotland stumbles upon a baby unicorn left behind by its herd, which dwells by the foamy sea. Bittersweet and delightful. Bottom left: I can’t believe I’m suggesting this–I’m not a massive Disney book fan, though heaven knows we own a ton of them–but the Disney Princess Cookbook is actually really fun and completely manageable. We have had a blast recreating the recipes. They are appropriate for young cooks, and this would make a fun gift combination with some cooking utensils or a personalized apron! My first grader reads it for fun and picks out what she’d like to make. Bottom right: Ordinary Extraordinary Jane Austen, by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Qin Leng. We love the illustrations in this book about young Jane Austen, and my kid just adored knowing she was learning about one of my favorite adult authors. We’ve had a lot of cozy chats about our mutual friend Jane since purchasing this book.
We all have friends who love classic novels. It’s difficult to buy books for these folks, because they’ve read so much. Here are a few books by very classic authors, but books are a little more off the beaten path than say, Charles Dickens or Mere Christianity. First on the left: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. The famous early twentieth-century writer tells the story of a priest and an archbishop maintaining missions in the old territories of New Mexico. It’s a beautiful, haunting portrayal of the Southwest (and as someone from the Southwest, it made me cry to read someone who understood its often harsh beauty). Top middle: George MacDonald’s The Curate of Glaston. I love all of MacDonald’s fiction. He was a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who understood the dangers of narrow, legalistic Christianity, and the gifts of Jesus, often writing of human transformation. These books, republished and edited (MacDonald was quite the lengthy writer), tell the story of Thomas Wingfold, a curate who undergoes a spiritual awakening and his resulting transformation, as well as that of his community. Top right: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope. Trollope was an extremely popular nineteenth-century novelist (and still popular in Britain), and this book has recently been made into a miniseries by Julian Fellowes. Read the joyous, humorous original, about a doctor, his beloved niece, and the boyish squire who wants to marry her in rural England. Finally, at the bottom: C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in his science fiction trilogy, The Space Trilogy. If you have a Lewis fan in your life who hasn’t read this one, I think it’s one of his best, about a professor who ends up on a space mission to Mars, kidnapped by a diabolical colonizing scientist.
I am the type of person who loves owning real, concrete books. I am a re-reader, and I love the texture, smell, and look of my old favorites. So it’s not unusual for me to own several copies of the same favorite book. Each one carries more than its own story–it reminds me of the giver, the time in my life, or the feelings I had when I read or received it. My friends know this about me, and so I’ve received several very sentimental book gifts over the years. Think of the pictures above as placeholders for this idea. First idea: see the beautiful copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? I love gorgeous copies of books I already own that are a little ugly. This copy, beautifully illustrated by Anna Rifle Bond, supplements the horribly ugly but dear to me 1970s copy that I first read twenty-five years ago. Giving a gorgeous copy of an old beloved is a great idea and can be very personal. Second, and a little trickier: giving a specific edition of a beloved book that is especially meaningful. I was given this collection of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It meant so much to me because this collection is the same edition that my dad read to me and my siblings as children many years ago. I love having the same edition sitting in that pride of place on my bookshelf, and remembering my wonder when I first heard the story of Lucy’s adventures into the wardrobe. Third idea: give a first edition of a favorite book. This can be cost-prohibitive, depending on how much you want to spend (hint: don’t try to buy Lewis or Tolkien or anyone wildly popular still, unless you’re a millionaire). This first-edition copy of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds was given to me by two of my dearest, oldest friends on my wedding day. I cherish it.
I love a good non-fiction book in the mix with fiction. The same reader might not like all of these, but they are each well-written, with excellent story-telling, and lots of new, enthralling, thought-provoking material. Top left: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This was really making the rounds a while ago, but I only just read it this year. I found it incredibly fascinating. It was a side of Lincoln that I had never known before, plus I feel like the time period has profound parallels to our own. Top right: Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home. As a devoted Austen fan, I learned so much from this book. It’s a pretty quick read and gives you a feel for the Regency period, and Austen’s world. Bottom: perhaps the best book of the bunch, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a great travel writer, and this book colorfully describes his travels from monastery to monastery, places the Desert Fathers lived and walked over a thousand years ago. Powerful, interesting, informative.
Historical fiction! My favorite kind! From left to right: Anya Seton’s Katherine is a classic that came out several decades ago. It tells the story of Katherine, mistress to a fourteenth-century prince, John of Gaunt, who in a completely shocking move of day (nearly all noble marriages were political), married her for love. He was also Geoffrey Chaucer’s patron! A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was among the best books I read this year. It’s more “literary” than the other two, but not highbrow or obscure. It’s the life-affirming, melancholy, yet joyful story of a Russian nobleman condemned to living in a hotel for the rest of his life after the Bolshevik Revolution. Finally, Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is a swashbuckling novel telling the tale of Uhtred, a Saxon of the Dark Ages fighting the Viking invasion of England alongside Alfred, King of Wessex. Not only is it a time period I didn’t know much about, this is a great book for folks who want a lot of action and adventure in their reading. It’s lively, quick, and an easy read. There’s a Netflix series made about it, too.
This is a small but mighty gift category. Not everyone wants something heavy like this, but if you have a loved one who is wanting to begin to read medieval or theological texts, these books are good places to start. Each offers something different. Top left: Confessions, written by perhaps the most influential theologian in the West, St. Augustine of Hippo. A bishop of the fourth century, Augustine writes the story of his conversion in the form of a confessional prayer. Beautiful, surprisingly accessible, and provocative, it’s a classic for any age. Top right: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a stunning alliterative poem penned by an anonymous fourteenth-century poet translated by Simon Armitage (though J.R.R. Tolkien also has a fun translation!). This poem tells the story of Sir Gawain, one of the most famous and chivalrous knights of King Arthur’s court, and his unexpected encounter with a Green Knight who won’t stay beheaded. Bonus: this fall I have done a whole series on Sir Gawain, making this medieval poem extra accessible for beginners! Finally, the bottom: The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn, the preeminent scholar of medieval mysticism. This lovely collection presents translated excerpts from a wide range of contemplative writers in the Christian tradition, from Augustine to Julian of Norwich to St. John of the Cross. Perfect for anyone interested in mystical prayer and theology from the foundations of the Church.
My most oddly specific category, yes. But relevant to so many lives around me, especially women from my own Christian background. Left: Shannon K. Evan’s Rewilding Motherhood. I find many motherhood books tedious, sentimental, or guilt-inducing. Not this one! Drawing upon many traditions of faith, including her own Catholic Ignatian spirituality, Evans argues for discarding much of the cultural expectations of motherhood to practice a love for our kids both uniquely feminine and empowered. Right: Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, which argues that complementarianism (the idea that women are not qualified to lead spiritually) is a cultural and patriarchal error. She makes a compelling case that this idea is far more rooted in cultural circumstances and history than the teachings and practices of both Jesus and Paul. An argument that takes challenging ideas and texts and makes them very approachable.
Are you completely scared to buy your bookish friend or family member a book, because they are obsessive book fiends who own everything? You can still get them something that speaks to their passion. One thing I did not picture here: a candle, which is always appreciated for those looking to create peaceful, meditative spaces of reading and thinking. But here are two more creative bookish gifts I’ve received from dear ones in my life. Left: a bookstand, originally bought from Barnes & Noble. A bookstand is wonderful for a few people in particular: folks like me, who work with texts that are not translated and often need a book open to the same page for a long time, for people who want a cookbook open in their kitchen, and for artists and writers who are looking at an illustration or page for a while. If your loved one fits into one of those categories, they might really enjoy one of these. Right: a quote from one of my all-time favorites, Julian of Norwich, that a dear friend commissioned for me and then framed. If you know a particular quote or book that your person loves, commission a local artist, someone on Instagram or Etsy, or if you’re artistically inclined, yourself, to create a personalized piece of art and literature. It’s a very thoughtful gift that really goes an extra mile to acknowledge someone’s passions and interests–plus it supports artists with small businesses! If you get it in a standard photo size, it can be very economical to frame it as well.
I hope that the Old Books With Grace Bookish Gift Guide has provided you with some interesting ideas for your gift-giving. If you found this helpful, feel free to like, share, and subscribe for more bookish fun. You can also follow me on Instagram @oldbookswithgrace, or on Twitter @gracehammanphd. Happy festive reading!