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Top 15 Birthday Books

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Top 15 Birthday Books in honor of Brain, Child’s 15th!

15logoBooks are the gifts that keep on giving, long past a singular birthday celebration. As we celebrate Brain, Child‘s 15th, this list suggests splendid books to gift to the parents—and the kids—in your life from that first birthday through the fifteenth. From perennial favorites to new classics, you’ll find something for your favorite Brain, Child reader (or future reader!) regardless of their sex or age.

1. Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw

With fun word play, original illustrations, and an imaginative narrative the first book in Shaw’s popular “Sheep” series will quickly become a bedtime or naptime favorite. Because of the rhymes on each page, the book also lends itself to conversation and language development with your little one. After reading it several (or 100!) times, you can pause at the end of each line and let your growing toddler supply the word, allowing you to really “read” together.


2. Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty

This clever, engaging, and creative book helps kids understand that you can always learn from a “failure.” It also draws a connection between the present and a historical figure, so you can begin talking to your kids about World War II and changing opportunities for women. You might be inclined to only gift this to little girls, but you’d be wrong! Boys love this tale about imagination and creation and it’s just as important to tell boys that girls can be engineers as it is to tell girls they can be.


3. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior by Jo Frost

Parents, forget about the “terrible twos” and start preparing yourself for a “threenager.” Frost’s book was spotlighted in the Winter 2014 issue of Brain, Child; I wrote there that I was surprised how effective the advice of a “TV nanny” was, but her clear style and no-nonsense approach makes for a crisp and useful read. Frost’s suggestions will still be helpful for the day that your threenager turns into a teenager, which will happen sooner than you might expect or like!


4. My Royal Birthday Adventure by Jennifer Dewing

What’s better than a birthday book? A personalized birthday book, of course. Dewing’s rhyming tale can be personalized for your recipient (boy, girls, age, etc.) and the book itself—with glossy, colorful pages—is a lovely present. At this age kids are on the cusp of literacy, with most recognizing their own name, so they get a real thrill out of not just seeing themselves as part of a tale, but “reading” it on their own. Plus, it can be added to a memory box someday as a treasured keepsake.


5. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Like Rosie Revere Engineer, Beautiful Oops imparts a life lesson about mistakes and failures. Saltzberg illustrates for kids that sometimes you can turn something bad, or unexpected, into something beautiful, or at the least pretty neat. Beautiful Oops makes use of different materials to make this point, which kids will enjoy exploring. Each page brings a new surprise and the interactive nature of reading the book makes for great back-and-forth opportunities between the reader and newly-minted five-year-old.


6. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss

You’ll usually find this book given as a graduation gift, but it also makes a great “starting grade school” gift. The beginning of an educational journey can be just as exciting as the end of one and parents will enjoy Seuss’ whimsical language even more when it’s not read through bittersweet tears. Few authors and illustrators can rival Seuss’ engaging, yet trenchant, observations about life. And if you want even more Seuss there’s always The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, The Lorax, and the list goes on…


7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Just because your child may be reading on his or her own there’s no need to stop reading together. Consider gifting a classic like Charlotte’s Web, which you can read aloud, or you can alternate paragraphs or pages with your proud new reader. Part of the enduring appeal of White’s book is its message of friendship, vocabulary, and of course those magical talking animals. Kids this age will still appreciate the illustrations, even if they don’t want to admit it.


8. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Oh, how I wanted to be one of the Boxcar Children when I read this series as a child. The adventure, the siblings, the mysteries, the wealthy grandfather! Warner wrote the first 19 books in the series, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through to her death in the 1970s. Books are still being added (at last count, over 150), which young readers who zip through will appreciate. This is a great age at which to start a series, which will engage budding readers for many entries over time. And like Charlotte’s Web, The Boxcar Children can be appreciated together aloud or read with relish independently. Note that the extravagant birthday gift giver might purchase a boxset…


9. This is Childhood: Those precious first years. 10 mothers. 10 essays. Edited by Marcelle Soviero and Randi Olin.

It’s the last year of having a child who isn’t double-digits. This is a great moment for parents to reflect on their journey thus far and think about what is yet to come. Brain, Child editors Olin and Soviero say it best in introducing the ten essays: “We believe you will see yourself in these pages: in the past if your children are older, in the preset if you’re right in the sweet spot of raising young children, and in the future if you’re planning to start a family, pregnant, or a brand-new mother. There is no doubt that the stories here will resonate: the tutus, the knock-knock jokes, the light-up sneakers.”


10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Can you think of a sweeter gift than the slightly miraculous miracle of first discovering Harry, Hermione, and Ron? Oh, and Dumbledore and Hagrid and butterbeer? It’s hard to believe now that our own childhoods were Harry Potter-less; thankfully that won’t be true for future generations. While the later books take a darker turn with death and destruction (and, yes, even romance) this is a good age at which to start the series—the later, longer books can be saved for another birthday treat.


11. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Koningsburg

A book filled with possibilities, especially for an eleven-year-old on the verge of independence, while still being dependent. This tale of running away, mystery, sibling love, and true adventure (amidst fine art no less!) will stay with a child for years—trust me I still think about statues with unusual markings on the bottom. If your child still lets you, read it with him or her; better yet, read it at the same time and have your own book club at home.


12. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

When I tell you this is the first book that ever made me cry you might think, “Why should I gift that book?” But it’s a remarkable tale of human-animal friendship that harkens back to another time. The story is so enduring that I can still remember some of the evocative language from when I first read the story in fifth grade (this from a girl who isn’t particularly into the outdoors, hunting, or dogs, so it shows how universal the story is as well). Another great selection to spark conversation with your birthday boy or girl.


13. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg

Congratulations, you have a new teenager in your life! While some may dread the teenage years, Steinberg reframes them in a positive way, emphasizing what is to be embraced (like the increased tendency to explore) and how to help teens develop skills during this time to help them throughout life. On second thought, perhaps you should tell your thirteen-year-old to gift you this book on your birthday. In any case, it celebrates 13 and the dawn of adolescence.


14. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

At an age when some might stop thinking reading is “cool,” Collins makes being engrossed in a book just that. Teens who want to explore more “adult” issues will relish the violence, romance, and anti-authoritarianism in the series (oh, and a lot of adults will as well). The best thing about this book is that every member of your household will likely be riveted by this original—though now much duplicated—tale.


15. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel

Here’s a fifteenth birthday gift from which you can both benefit. Sociologist Karabel’s book can double as a door-stopper (at over 700 pages), but it’s worth it. College is on the minds of many families with children this age. Many books capitalize on this fact, and many recent titles talk about how where you go to college doesn’t necessarily determine your fate. Karabel’s detailed history helps explain why college has evolved the way it has over the past 100 years or so. Not only will this book arm you with context to make sense of current admissions frenzies (which you can evaluate with a more clear perspective, and perhaps a jaded eye, after reading the book), but it will also help prepare your 15-teen-year-old for the type of reading and thinking s/he will be expected to do while in college.

And, soon, congratulations instead of happy birthday to all of you for making it through high school and adolescence! Glad Brain, Child could be part of your parenting journey.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

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