Our Holiday Shopping Guide to Great Books

By | December 12, 2011

Hello, and Merry Christmas! The two of us writing this site both have undergraduate degrees in English Literature, so when it comes to great gift ideas, we often turn to books. We love ’em, and books like Last Child in the Woods and Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids have provided the philosophical ground and inspiration for this site. We read a lot, and this is a great time of year to share a few of our favorites. Check it out and then tell us about the ones we missed in the comments!

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv

Having read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that his new book, The Nature Principle is somehow able to again cover the topic of separation from nature, but really tread new ground. I’m not quite sure how he’s able to do this. It may be that the writing is noticeably more personal.

There is still the quoting of experts, but Louv writes now of intimate things, like sitting at the site of his father’s self-inflicted demise, questioning whether separation from nature hastened his mental illness and whether our own can have similar effects. It’s a powerful moment, and involved this reader with the book very strongly. A less emotional but still appreciated carryover from the first book is that we hear more about Louv’s children, now grown older. This helps to give this decidedly non-fiction book “characters” and lends the feeling of continuation you might find in a fiction trilogy. Highly recommended. Look for a longer more detailed review later.

Survivor Kid: A Practical Guide to Wilderness Survival
By Denise Long

Right off the bat I want to thanks the author and publisher for not excluding my daughter with this book. Gender is a big thing for her at this age. She has whole taxonomies to explain that blue is for boys and red is for girls, girls can be doctors but not dentists, and boys can’t dance but girls can. So all the books with titles like Boys’ Adventure Guide or A Boy’s Guide to the Outdoors, or any other such title, causes her to automatically erase it from her list of possibilities. (And the “girl” books are kind of lame.)

Survivor Kid is more pragmatic than all that. Not looking to cash in on a marketing angle, the goal of the book can be appreciated by both boys and girls—the goal of surviving outside should they get lost or hurt. There’s plenty in here for young readers (middle schoolers would love the book), but parents will find a lot for creating fun learning activities. I think there’s a Trench Shelter (pp. 27-28) in our future. Toward the end the book, the author has described everything you need for a survival kit.

The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun
By Ken Denmead

“We seem to have gotten further and further away from an honest understanding and use of science in our daily lives. When emotional and political motivations color the use of scientific results, the true purpose of science gets lost.” So begins the introduction to Ken Denmead’s The Geek Dad book for Aspiring Mad Scientists. And thus we learn that while the title is obviously a joke, inside the joke are (clearly benevolent) honest plans for “world domination.” Denmead really is a mad scientist, looking to change the world to his (again, benevolent) ends!

While the contents are too involved and “recipe”-like for me to get into them here, suffice to say that—I’m condensing madly, here—this book explains exactly why Mentos explode in soda in hundreds of different ways. Different Mentos, different sodas, but the same basic  “average materials with extraordinary results” scenario. And a clear scientific explanation of why it happens. If you’re the type of Dad to look for teachable moments, and have any interest in science at all—get this book. Or Ken Denmead will make you his minion (p.27, DIY Mind Control).

Handy Dad: 25 Awesome Projects for Dads and Kids
By Todd Davis

In the publishing world, there’s a lot of talk about what kinds of traditional books can compete with e-books. And there seems to be a growing understanding that books need to have something special—lots of color, unique design, and interesting materials—in order to compete. Handy Dad rises to that level. The book is as attractive as it is useful. I just was blown away by the heavy stock, the textured cover, the creative design.

Divided up by how long each project should take (easy, afternoon, weekend), Davis gives us twenty-five great projects. From a homemade lava lamp and a water-pressure rocket to a half-pipe and a rope bridge, these kinds of projects can be done with the kids or for the kids—and they’ll love the results either way. Personally, I am looking forward to building the skate longboard. Thankfully it will be a few years before the kids are old enough to want to borrow it.

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)
By Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler

A little while back I watched Gever Tulley give a little talk on TED. There’s a movement afoot, encouraging parents to stop babying their children. We’re raising a generation of adults that can’t do for themselves—stifling not only creativity and such, but keeping kids from developing competence and a sense of confidence. Cut it out. I wish every parent had a copy of Tulley’s book and worked through all 50 of these “dangerous things.” There would be more scraped knees, cut fingers, and even some broken arms, but there would also be more kids who knew how to interact and control the world they live in.

And your kids will love it, whether they’re standing on the roof, breaking glass with a bat in the driveway, or exploring subterranean worlds, this is the stuff that childhood is made of. Embrace it, scraped knees and all.

Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff: 50 Projects You Can Build
By David and Jeanie Stiles

When I was in high school we went white-water rafting quite a few times in West Virginia. While waiting to return my wetsuit, I would take a look at a few of the books the outfitter had for sale near the gear trailer. One of these was a fully illustrated guide to white-water kayaking. I really loved this book. Through funky cartoons, the author was better able to describe certain paddle strokes and river scenarios than photos ever could. I got that same feeling when I picked up Tree Houses and Other Cool Stuff.

More than just treehouses, the book covers everything from a lemonade stand to a playhouse shaped like a spaceship. There’s also a section on accessories (i.e. treasure chests and canons for the pirate ship, winches and special locks, rope swings, etc.). The full-color photos give you a good idea of what the project should look like, but the hand-drawn illustrations are where it’s at. They show you how to make it. Maybe I should be a little embarrassed how important pictures are for me with this kind of book, but I think you’ll find them very useful. And again, your kids will love these projects!

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