Books for the Holidays

Gift ideas for the young and old

Photo by Shimelle Laine
Photo by Shimelle Laine


Giving books for the holidays is always a crapshoot. Sometimes the recipient will gush, “Oh, just what I always wanted—a deluxe pigskin-bound copy of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes.” At other times, he or she will reply, “Oh, a book. I just love books. I used to have some when I went to college.” Most well-bred people are polite: “How thoughtful of you! One can never have too many novels by James Patterson.” But others may blurt out: “Oh, darn! Another copy of Fifty Shades of Grey! What I was really hoping for was a cotton chenille housecoat and a pair of comfy wool socks. Or maybe a new toaster.”

Given the general rate of failure and misfire, I’ve come to believe that one should simply give attractive copies of the books one loves. So here, arranged by age group, are some of my favorites (with a focus on literary and biographical/historical works). I’ve listed just one or two titles by the chosen authors, but in most cases their other books are often just as good. I’ve also avoided classics that are either over-familiar or that seemed to lack an appropriately festive or fireside feel to them. So you won’t find Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”), nor is there anything here by, say, Kafka, Faulkner, or Virginia Woolf.

Bear in mind that the chronological ordering is, obviously, only approximate. Some people are more advanced readers than others, but good books for even the youngest kids are still enjoyable by the most mature grown-up. I would normally annotate such a list, but this would make for an inordinately long column, so I simply urge you to seek out some of these writers and their works in your local bookstore or online. A few titles may be out of print, but old copies are worth tracking down. Indeed, I’m firmly convinced that an old hardback—whether a first edition or not—is better than a recent paperback. But then I’ve never believed that a gift needed to be absolutely new, otherwise people wouldn’t be buying antique earrings, let alone pre-owned BMWs, for their sweethearts.


Ages 1-4:

The Real Mother Goose, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury)

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by Arnold Lobel

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton

The Travels of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff


Ages 5-7:

Any good edition of the classic fairy tales

Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Lillian Hoban)

A Day with Wilbur Robinson, by William Joyce

Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg

Miss Nelson is Missing! By Harry Allad (illustrated by James Marshall)


Ages 8-11:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (illustrated by John Tenniel)

Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame; illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard or Arthur Rackham

Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (illustrated by Jules Feiffer)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Blackhearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken

5 Novels: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars; Slaves of Spiegel; The Last Guru; Young Adult Novel; The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, by Daniel Pinkwater

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Sword in the Stone, by T. H. White

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin


Ages 11-15:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by A. Conan Doyle

Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser

Collected Ghost Stories, by M. R. James

101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, edited by Ellery Queen

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg (volume one: short stories; volumes two and three: novellas)

The Golden Argosy: A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language, edited by Van H. Cartmell and Charles Grayson

The White Nile and The Blue Nile, by Alan Moorehead

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing


Ages 16-19

She, by H. Rider Haggard

The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

The Thurber Carnival, by James Thurber

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance

True Grit, by Charles Portis


Ages 19 and up



Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm

Leave it to Psmith, by P. G. Wodehouse

Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

The Locusts Have No King, by Dawn Powell

Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell

Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter

A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley

Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

Small World, by David Lodge

Amphigorey, by Edward Gorey



Poets of the English Language, edited by W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (five volumes)

Individual editions of the poetry of T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Anthony Hecht

Eothen, by Alexander Kinglake

Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell

The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien

Hindoo Holiday, by J. R. Ackerley

Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Letters of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, edited by Simon Karlinsky

The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, by John Dickson Carr

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley

The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays by Guy Davenport

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

United States: Essays 1952-1992, by Gore Vidal


Well, I’d better stop. I’m beginning to think of more and more titles. But remember: these are just some of the books that I enjoy giving to people. Tastes may differ, and I’ve no doubt overlooked the one work that a) changed your life, b) to which you return regularly for comfort and renewal, or c) that you wished everyone in the world knew about. At all events, I do think any of treasures listed above would make for good reading on a cold winter’s night (or two or three). Happy holidays.

For more yuletide book recommendations, see Dirda’s “Christmas Reading” here

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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