coffee table book

It delivers what it promises...

It delivers what it promises…

I love coffee table books. They’re just these huge, panoramic sources of information and, as a kid, I particularly loved them because, in addition to being beautiful, they also seemed like something that belonged to the world of parents. There’s something about a kid reading an over-sized coffee table book that just feels subversive, like the kid is somehow reaching above their station and accessing forbidden knowledge. That is one of many reasons why I found impossible to resist buying my daughter a copy of Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, a gorgeous world atlas by Big Picture Press that’s so beautiful, you’ll want to frame every two-page spread and hang it on your wall.

I encountered Maps for the first time last week during an impromptu trip to New York City. I had some time to kill, so I found myself browsing the New York Public Library (OK, I’ll admit, I was doing a self-guided Ghostbusters walking tour) and I saw Maps in the gift shop. After two minutes of flipping through it, I was hooked and it became my daughter’s souvenir from my trip.

Maps isn’t an exhaustive world atlas. It features 52 maps – including hand-drawn maps of all seven continents and individual maps of several major countries in each. (North America, Antarctica, and Australia are easily served, while the rest of the continents only get featured selections.) While that might rankle any completists out there, I should say that Maps isn’t trying to be an exhaustive cartography resource. There are other atlases for that (or even apps). What Maps is trying to accomplish is a little more interesting and a little harder to do. It’s trying to give kids a taste of what the rest of the world is like. It’s trying, through art, to convey a sense of what these countries are all about. Which is ambitious to say the least, but I think it largely accomplishes its goals.

Click to expand this to something closer to its in-person glory...

Click to expand this to something closer to its in-person glory…

Each country gets a two-page spread and, in addition to the country’s rivers and borders, Mizielińska and Mizieliński populate each map with an exhaustive series of icons and details that call out some of the distinguishing features of the country in question. The marginal illustrations show you what the people look like, they recount the country’s history, they show you the food, the flora, the fauna – each map really does try to show young readers how each country FEELS, which is a lot more impressive to me than any topography or latitude-and-longitude map. [read the rest of the post…]


Jim Henson: The Works

Reading about the Muppets is almost as fun as watching the Muppets…

To say that my wife and I are big fans of Jim Henson would be a massive understatement. Henson and the various fruits of his labor were major, defining influences in both of our young lives, so, when we had a daughter, I’ll admit, we were pretty determined that the Muppets and their ilk would play a major role in her life too. Were we pushy about introducing the Muppets to our daughter? YES. But, fortunately, she did gravitate towards them quickly on her own and seemed to legitimately love them as much as we did. (For an example of what happens when you push something onto your child when they’re NOT ready or interested in it, read my previous post about my attempts to read my kid The Phantom Tollbooth.)

My daughter devoured every episode of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street that we’d share with her. She adored a Muppets poster that has hung over her bed since she was born, obsessively trying to memorize the name of every character in the line-up. (Her favorite obscure Muppet was always Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle.) And she’s dressed up as both Miss Piggy and Fozzie for Halloween. She was a Jim Henson fan before she could even comprehend who Jim Henson was. And, because she took to the Muppets so eagerly, I, of course, started seeking out books about the Muppets and other Henson projects that she might enjoy. However, strangely, there are not a ton of Muppet books available for kids. There are a lot of Sesame Street books, but if you’re looking for kids’ books about the Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, or any other non-Sesame Henson project, the choices are fairly few and far between.

(There were a few tie-in books released with the new Muppets movie in 2011, but the ones I’ve read weren’t very good.)

However, there are options out there, if you’re willing to look for them. So, if you think your kid might enjoy the Muppets or if you’re a pop culture-obsessed parent-to-be that wants to push Ms. Piggy on your progeny, here are six books – a mixture of fiction and nonfiction – that might help foster a love of The Muppets in your developing reader.

1. Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch

Jim Henson: The Works

No coffee table should be without this book…

One of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. This gorgeously designed coffee table book is an amazing chronicle of the life and works of Jim Henson. (See my previous article “The Importance of Coffee Table Books for Young Readers“.) Jim Henson: The Works covers every aspect of Henson’s career – from his early days as a puppeteer to his final days as a media icon – and draws together a fantastic collection of photographs and primary source material about Henson’s life. Will your young child be able to read the text on their own? No. Probably not until they’re older. But this is a book that was made to be browsed. My daughter adores flipping through the pages of this book – we’ve brought it on almost every road trip we’ve ever taken. She’d spend hours just combing through the pages, finding new images that she loved or reading small excerpts that caught her eye. And, because the book has such a multi-tiered appeal (the images are accessible to the youngest readers, the text will be captivating to older readers), I can tell that this is a book that will remain on our bookshelves for years to come. (Still in print. Relatively easy to find online.)

Jim Henson: The Works

One of my favorite pictures from the book…

2. Sesame Street: Unpaved by David Borgenicht

Sesame Street: Unpaved

My kid tore through two different copies of this book…

While, yes, there are many other Sesame Street books available for kids – my favorites come from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club – this is one of the few age-appropriate books available that really present a compelling history of the show itself. Another excellent kid-friendly coffee table book, Sesame Street: Unpaved assembles a beautiful visual history of perhaps the most influential work of children’s television ever made. The book offers a really compelling history of the show (including some interesting behind-the-scenes stories for older readers) and has sections devoted to all of the major Sesame Street characters, both human and Muppet. Like Jim Henson: The Works, this is another book with an appeal that spans generations. Kids will browse it endlessly for the pictures and their favorite characters, and older fans will appreciate it as an entertaining world of cultural history. (Out of print, but you can get used copies for under 8 bucks on Amazon and other venues online.) [read the rest of the post…]

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John K King Books

Hopefully, your hunt for great used kids books will take you to amazing stores like this one.

Since I started Building a Library, I’ve probably gotten the most questions from friends and family about how to find great used books for their kids’ home library. Because finding new books is relatively easy. There are magazine reviews and display racks at Target and cartoon/toy tie-ins that can usually point you towards at least some new children’s titles and, often times, those titles might even be halfway decent. Bookstore employees and librarians, in particular, pride themselves on highlighting great new children’s titles that have recently landed on their radar, and they’re definitely amazing resources that parents need to take advantage of more often. Simply put, new books have a lot of advocates in their corner.

Finding advocates for used books, on the other hand, is a trickier issue all together. Because the definition of used books can be pretty broad. When you say “used books”, are you just talking finding already-read versions of popular titles that you can buy for cheaper-than-sticker-price? That’s a valid definition, but, usually, when I’m looking for “used books”, I’m looking for books that I can’t find new. Books that are out-of-print, unheralded classics, or even just weird little titles that you would never see at a Barnes & Noble. A good example of this is my well-documented love for the Sesame Street Book Club titles, books that you can only now find via eBay, flea markets, or used bookstores. [read the rest of the post…]


The Big Idea

Coffee table books are a MUST for any home library

Some of my favorite book reviews come from Boing Boing, a tech-focused culture blog that you’ve probably already heard of and that I’ll sound like an idiot if I try to explain any further. It’s a wonderful online hub for news and commentary, featuring contributors that write intelligently and passionately about a wide range of subjects. One of those subjects, from time to time, is books and, as I should’ve expected, their book reviews are as intelligent and passionate as the rest of the blog.

Last week, Maggie Koerth-Baker, penned a great review of a new National Geographic coffee table book called The Big Idea: How Breakthroughs of the Past Shape the Future, and there was a passage in her review about the impact that coffee table books can have on kids that I absolutely adore. She wrote:

I still think kids and coffee table books go together like peanut butter and jelly. In late grade school and junior high, you’re at an age where you still enjoy picture books but are looking for a bigger, deeper view of the world than most picture books provide. Coffee table books bridge that gap, offering grown-up perspectives in kid-friendly packages. Whether the topic is art, architecture, history, culture, or science—coffee table books can be a kid’s first step into a subject they’ll come to love as an adult.

I could NOT agree with Maggie more, and I totally heart her for describing something that I rant about every few months in way more eloquent terms than I ever could.

OK, this blog is all about giving advice about building a home library, right? So, here is one of my top five favorite pieces of advice to give parents who are trying to put together a collection of books for their children: Make sure that your kid – whether they’re 2 or 12 years old – has access to a big variety of coffee table books. [read the rest of the post…]