Forget the piles of generic best sellers and holiday splash placed prominently just inside the front door of your local bookchain. Instead, take the road less traveled to the quirky or unsung books no one else will think of, the ones that just might please their recipients because they’re not the obvious choices.
For an expectant parent: The slightly loopy and delightful Atticus: Baby Names from Great Books . The sub-title says it all. Mulligan, Monroe, Moses, complete with literary sources (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel; Monroe Stahr in Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon); Juno (before there was a movie, there was Juno, the Roman queen of the gods as well as a character in both The Aneid and Shakespeare’s The Tempest); Esmé (think J.D. Salinger) and variations on Celia/Cecelia, (Shakespeare again and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple) are just a few I've culled from a generous assortment of names both ordinary and strange. What’s best are the commentaries that follow each entry and the occasional summaries at the bottom of the page: “In Bloom,” a list of girl’s flower names; “Celtic Chaps,” followed by a list that includes Doyle, Angus, Duncan, Conan, and the aforementioned Mulligan; “Euro-Coolest” and “The Bard’s Babes,” Ariel, Beatrice, and Phoebe among them. This book provides delicious and entertaining reading even if you’re not expecting. If you are, it’s a gem.
For any kid or adult: 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12!  The title says it all … or almost all. What it doesn't say are the particulars. Here are some of my favorites: a pigpen; a courthouse; a “very big thing”; the teachers’ lounge; the backstage of a theater; a subway; an animal rescue center; a haunted place; the middle of nowhere – you get the idea. Each entry is accompanied by a brief description, but best of all, there’s an index that lists examples of each type of place in various parts of the country and a map at the back with stickers to place on each place as you visit. Excellent.
For all of us: The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change , a collection of essays by a wide variety of women, edited by Shari Macdonald Strong. Joining the voices for change that have become a chorus over the last year, the writers assembled here – Nancy Pelosi, the late Benazir Bhutto, Anne Lamott, Cindy Sheehan, Susie Bright among them – tackle topics as various as “the secret lives of babysitters,” motherhood as activism, raising boys in a time of war, and “the mean moms.” And those are just a few. Essay collections, when they’re well chosen and arranged, as this one is, can be a strong lifeline for those with active minds but only small patches of quiet time in which to stretch them.
You might think that a book about the future of very poor kids in Harlem hasn’t much to do with us or our jobs or our children, especially if, even in these difficult times, our lives are relatively comfortable and stable. You would be wrong. Whatever It Takes , by Paul Tough, has everything to do with all of us and with our kids. It’s an account of how one man, Geoffrey Canada, set out to transform the lives of kids living in poverty. Understanding that small, discrete programs could do only so much, he set out to paint the world of Harlem’s kids and their parents on a larger canvas, specifically, a ninety-seven block area called “The Harlem Children’s Zone.”
This mini-world, for that’s what he set out to create, has become a place to test out ways to enable the poor children within it to succeed in ways competitive with their counterparts in the middle class. Canada understands that schools can only do so much. That fundamental change has to do with educating parents before their children are even born. Thus “Baby College” was born -- an intensive school for prospective parents that teaches them how vital language is to a baby’s development and how to implement that knowledge with their newborn and toddler; that helps them understand that a two-year old’s refusal to obey is part of what all two year olds do; that negotiation, explanation, and impulse control are not just ways of getting kids to listen, but actually are intertwined with the middle-class style of brain development. And that, in part, is what helps middle class kids succeed in school and make better decisions in life.
The schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone are geared for challenge and success, success they’ve been measuring year by year by year. I can’t do justice to this book here, can’t replicate the suspense Tough creates as we wonder how close to its goals the middle school comes in its first, then its second year and beyond. I can only urge everyone to get hold of this very important book. This isn’t a romance; it’s a hard look at a hugely ambitious project that can and ought to be replicated across the country, correcting for its imperfections and building on its successes. Never mind changing the way Washington does business. Real change will only come when kids born into poverty learn the ways out.