Q: I'd like to find some educational, yet enjoyable, non-techie gifts for kids on my list, as I'm sure their parents will get them "Star Wars" and video game-type stuff. The kids range in age from 1 to 12. Are books still cool? Do you have any suggestions?
A: Books are still cool, and essential. In the age of tablets, kids still love to own "real" books. And they benefit academically by growing up in what educators call a "print rich" environment. This boosts kids' love of reading, develops their curiosity and encourages family sharing and discussion.
A 2014 study published in Oxford's Social Forces journal researched families in 42 nations and found that having a growing home library has a strong positive influence on a child's academic success. So continue stuffing those stockings with good reading.
Just remember these rules of thumb when selecting books, suggests Carl Harvey, an elementary school librarian in Noblesville, Indiana.
For the very young, consider board books, pop-up books and picture books. Choose books that promote "cuddle time" and introduce kids to the rhythms and sounds of language as parents read them. Some board books feature sound or textured pages, adding to the reading experience.
For early readers, consider picture books with universal themes or those that promote early learning skills, such as the alphabet or number concepts. Look for books with colorful illustrations and text that repeats or rhymes and tells a story that explores a childhood theme, such as Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." There are many "best picture books" lists, and most bookstores have a large selection to browse before you buy.
As children become proficient readers, they start to appreciate favorite authors and themes, so ask a parent or a teacher about the kids' fiction preferences. Better yet, says Harvey, give the children gift cards and let them choose their leisure reading.
Nonfiction books are always a good bet. They can boost a child's growing interest in a topic. A doodler might enjoy "Go: A Kidd's Guide To Graphic Design" (Workman, 2013). A "Star Wars" fan might like "Space: A Visual Encyclopedia" (DK Children, 2010). A young chef might love "Cooking Class: 57 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Make (and Eat!)" (Storey Publishing, 2015). A budding marine biologist will appreciate "Ocean: A Photicular Book" (Workman, 2014).
Kids' almanacs -- from National Geographic and Scholastic to the Farmers Almanac for Kids -- are packed with "weird but true" facts the whole family can enjoy.
Children's poetry collections are fun for the whole family as well. There are hundreds to choose from, ranging from "The Random House Book of Poetry for Children," illustrated by Arnold Lobel (Random House, 1983), to those organized around themes, such as "National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry" (National Geographic Children's Books, 2015), and "Amazing Places" (Lee and Low Books, 2015), featuring poems about America's great treasures.
Workman Publishing, Klutz and DK offer a rich range of "fun between two covers" for kids, says Rachelle Levy, a Florida educator. "These rainy-day books spur curiosity, discovery and laughter. You'll find books of games, puzzles, mazes and riddles; kits that introduce hobbies; books that take kids places, teach storytelling or card games.
"Half the fun in giving is shopping for them."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)