Saturday, November 29, 2014

Holiday Gift Ideas 2014

Someone's beautiful cat posing regally with his Christmas catnip mouse before going crazy. 
And someone's beautiful (grand)mother getting a Ben-knit scarf.
Hi, hi! Do you feel bombarded with holiday irritants, and I'm not part of the solution because I'm here talking about it? I'm sorry! But, as you may know, I'm a real books-and-games kind of person. Which is why that's what I recommend year after year. Speaking of, there are past ideas to browse, if you like:

2014 mid-year book and game recommendations are here and here.

Last year's gift ideas are here. (Those pens were a crazy hit, by the way, even beyond being spirograph-friendly.)

And the year before: here.


Also, there's a games index and holidays + craft index, both in the upper right hand corner of this blog. See them up there? There are lots of ideas there, for things to make and do and get, including pretty much all of our favorite games. But these below are what I'm recommending this year. Either because they're things we're in the thick of enjoying ourselves or because they're things we (or I) am giving this year. Please share your own ideas in the comments. Please. I can't tell you how many fantastic books we've read and games we've played because of your advice. (Note: if you are a child or mother of mine, or a friend named Ava, please stop reading now.)
Cape Cod, Summer 2014.
Acquire. I have been recommending this game for years--it's the first serious European-style strategy game we ever played--but I'm mentioning it again because it turns out we were PLAYING IT WRONG. It's so crazy, because it was still a good game, but it reminded me annoyingly of Monopoly, and now that we play it correctly, it doesn't. It is a brutal, but almost perfect, real-estate investment game that's interesting in part because there are actually multiple winning strategies (playing more cooperatively, say, or playing more wickedly), and so different types of gamers can play well.

I made Ben and Birdy fake-play so I could take a picture. But then we ended up playing.
Tsuro. Everyone here is making fun of me for mentioning this game here, now, because we've had it for years, and I used to be convinced it was boring and stupid. But, uh, maybe it was me, since we discovered this year that it's great: a deceptively simple maze-type game that has a fair amount of evilness built into it. Ben describes it as "A mix of spatial planning and sabotage." Also, it's got a lovely design and doesn't take very long--so if you're being tortured, it will all be over quickly.

"Simple but very strategic," says Ben, shown here kicking somebody or other's ass, because that's what he does.
Quarto is a lot like Gobblet: a streamlined, beautifully made tic-tac-toe-style two-person strategy game that seems stupidly easy until you lose and slap your own forehead and say the f-word. The heirloom-style wooden pieces make it an especially lovely gift. Because it's only a two-person game, we sometimes have Quarto play-offs, and the people waiting their turn play Gobblet or Connect Four in the meantime. Fun!

"It's an exciting mix between battle strategy and fun cartoony art." Ben, on Small World.
Small World. This is our newest--a big, long doozy of a serious strategy game--and we've been playing it a lot. I have to tell you that I don't love it, because it's like Munchkin crossed with Risk, and I love neither of those games. That said, Ben LOVES it with a capital LOVES and it is the game he always picks if he is getting to pick the game we all play. Michael, who also loves Risk, loves it too. If you are needing a new strategy game, this is a good one, since it has, like, a million expansions you can collect.

Anomia Seltzerfest 2014
Anomia Party Edition. As Ben puts it, "Anomia, but more so. The categories are zanier and wackier than before." And that's not even including his friend Ava's homemade category, "Say the word hinkumbooby"! Six brand new decks make for tons of play value, and it's really the ideal party game. The kids and their friends (and sometimes us grown-ups) play it all the time, and it is our most-requested, "Will you bring ___ when you come over?" game.


Qwixx. I mentioned this back in the summer, but it's a game that's turned out to have a ton of staying power. We've played a lot, continuously, and given it to many, many people as a gift. It's easy to learn and easy to play, not stressful, but strangely compelling nonetheless. Also packable and approachable and quick and relatively inexpensive. I love it.


Also from Gamewright, Sushi Go is a great, smallish, stocking-stuffer-y choice that makes a really good introduction to strategy games. It's got a weird preemptive psychological element to it, like the way rock-paper-scissors does if you play too many rounds with the same person, and I love that. Plus the sushi-themed art is adorable and the colors are fantastic.


Avian Friends Jigsaw Puzzle. Oh, this puzzle. I have now done it twice this year, on two different vacations, and I loved it both times.
Yes, I'm in my pajamas doing a puzzle with a huge group of children. So?
It's not actually the puzzle I got my family for the upcoming holidays (I got them this one), on account of us having already done it twice, but it's pretty much a perfect puzzle, with exactly the kind of perfect, pretty sections you can pick out and do, and then a nice hard-but-not-impossible border situation.

This is my own actual spread in the book!  That I wrote! About how we think about games! Maybe you should get it so you can really read it! And so you can see the illustration imagining that I have three kids and am married to a kind of hirsute hunk.
I know I keep talking about it, but Unbored Games is such a good gift for both self-entertaining kids and kids who could stand to be more self-entertaining. It has so many ideas for games to play in pairs, in groups, alone, in almost any kind of situation. Active, passive, parlor. I love it. Also, if you don't have it yet, the original Unbored is indispensable and tied with Wreck This Journal for the most-given-ever gift from our household.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a book Birdy loved so profoundly that a) she compared it to Harry Potter *and* Wonder, and b) she has nagged me daily to read it since she finished it. I admit that I have not read it yet, but I am going to because it looks great. Birdy: "It's about a girl who, after a really big loss, sort of puts herself back together." (Even that description kind of makes me feel like crying.)



Sky Maul 2 is the only book I got Ben because I don't think he actually reads literature any more, outside of school, maybe? I'm not sure. I am trying to pick only a dozen things to nag him about at a time, and that's not on the current list. So I got him this Sky Mall parody because it's all of his favorite things: 1) funny, 2) Sky Mall, and 3) not very taxing to read. It really looks hilarious, though.


The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner. Okay, yes, I just wrote about this and, yes, it's my friend's book. But if you are still lucky enough to be buying picture books for your kids (or any kids), this is such a beauty: a gentle, lovely story about the connection between a deaf mother and her baby, and about a little girl who kind of falls in love with them. Also, sheep, wool, knitting, Jews. Perfection.


A book for the grown-ups: Euphoria by Lily King. I want to be able to tell you that Euphoria reminded me of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, without you thinking that it's in any way really like it--only that if you have been waiting and waiting to read almost that exact same complicated, deliriously excellent book again, but afresh, this is as close as you're going to get. If I say "1930's anthropologist love triangle," or "based on the real-life journals of Margaret Mead," you're maybe not going to get as excited as you should. Give this to anyone in your life who loves to read.


And another: My Notorious Life. I am giving this delightful novel to more than one adult-type person this year, including my own mother and Ben's friend Ava. Here's the gushing fan message I sent the author: "Oh, Kate Manning, I am reading My Notorious Life, and it so good, so deliciously perfect, that I wake myself in the night to put my headlamp on and read some more. I keep trying to imagine how you wrote it--how you got all that rich and spicy language to sound just right--but mostly I'm just glad you did." It's about a 19th-century midwife-turned-abortionist living in New York City, and it's like a Dickens novel crossed with a Planned Parenthood historical timeline. But better. Also, she wrote me back the nicest note (she reads with a headlamp too!).

Speaking of: My brother's family gave Birdy her own headlamp last year, and it was such a great present that we've since given it to a number of other kids. This headlamp, to be precise.


I love this selling point: "Ambient mode: wide beam with reduced brightness, avoids blinding others in a group situation." So, nobody will be blinded in a group situation. Phew! And speaking of excellent gift ideas we've gleaned from my brother's family, this Swiss Army Knife is another gift we've taken to giving bigger kids, especially if they're campers.
It has a saw, which my kids really require, but which is not the greatest for little kids. Although if you give this knife to a little kid, I suppose they'll already have cut their fingers off anyways by the time they'd be getting around to using the saw. This knife, paired with this little book about whittling, would be the nicest present ever.


I cannot recommend passionately enough that you have a ukelele in your home (or in your car on a long trip), and giving one to a kid for the holidays might be the best way to get it there. We took a book out of the library about learning to play, but this kit has everything you need to start (including the instrument itself) and is reasonably priced.

Poo-Dough poop mold. Oh man, what can I say? My kids are going to get a kick out of something like this for about one more second, and then it's going to be all laundry money and calendars for the rest of their lives. I couldn't resist. Stocking stuffer. It's just what it looks like.

50 comments:

  1. We gave my Sudoku-playing mother-in-law Colorku for her birthday and she loves it. Thank you for the recommendation!

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    1. Oh, good! I had to quit for a while I was so addicted to it.

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  2. Also! Thank you to Birdy for the book recommendation! She and my daughter have very similar tastes.

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  3. Erin in CA10:31 AM

    Thank you! I will be picking up the card game for sure. I just ordered the Bounce-Off game for my kiddos. We haven't played it yet, but the reviews seem promising. http://www.amazon.com/Mattel-CBJ83-Bounce-Off-Game/dp/B00IQ8MVH8

    And my 11-y.o. son and I totally agree with Birdy about Counting by 7s. So, so amazing. I feel a little adrift after reading it, because nothing else has come close in quality.

    I am (cough, cough) the reader who had the original Unbored sent to you for review, so I'm delighted that it was such a good fit -- so good that you're now a contributor! Yay! I love it when my worlds collide, and then align. Happiest of holidays!

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    1. Erin, thank you so much! That has been such a meaningful connection for me. xo

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  4. Ah, if only the Poo-Dough were gluten free!!
    Seriously though, you always have the best gift ideas. Thank you.

    A few suggestions that have been a hit in our house (of younger kids):

    Plan Toys Stacking Tree (loved by my toddler through seven year old, and my go-to baby shower gift): http://www.amazon.com/Plan-Toys-0514900-Stacking-Tree/dp/B001CMC41I

    Suminagashi Marbling Kit (my kids beg me to do this all the time, and it's a shame I don't more often, because it's not really as messy or time consuming as I tell myself it is, and the results are lovely): http://www.amazon.com/Innovation-Marbling-Kit-Japanese-Suminagashi/dp/B003W2PX8M

    The Man Who Lived Alone, by Donald Hall (darker than The Ox-Cart Man, another Donald Hall favorite, but so, so loved by my kids):
    http://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Lived-Alone/dp/1567920500

    Unrelated, I just want to say that I loved your recent Motherlode essay about "not rescuing" kids, which I shared all over facebook, and also "This is Fourteen", which gave me a pang of nostalgia when I realized that I've been reading you since Ben was a lanky seven year old with long hair and Emmett was a baby, and now *I* am the one with a lanky, long-haired seven year old. Sigh.

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    1. Oh, these look great! Thank you so much for sharing. xo

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  5. Thank you! I've just added My Notorious Life and State of Wonder to my list. I would recommend for anything by Laurie Graham - particularly My Humble Companion. And for kiddos (prob nine and up) Animalium. I have only had a few quick browses of it as every time I take it out of its hiding place I hear my kids steps on the stairs but Im pretty sure its AMAZING.

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    1. Oooh! Thank you, Lucy! xo

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  6. AnnRKey1:16 AM

    I loved State of Wonder so much that I knew Euphoria was the book for me. I tracked it down at not-my-usual-library this afternoon and have already started it. Because "anthropologist love triangle" and "Margaret Mead" sound very exciting to me.

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  8. This book contains within some serious hilariousness. Share it with your kin and you're sure to grin. ;O) Especially if you all read the goat's voice in kind of a Napoleon Dynamite tone.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1423159527/ref=ox_sc_imb_mini_detail?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER

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  9. Great list. I'm totally buying Qwixx for lots of people. And as you know I adore both Unbored AND Unbored Games (and that was before I realized you had an actual part in it!) and Euphoria is for sure one of my favorite books of the year. So good.

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    1. right? and thank you! xo

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  10. Oh -- you are all going to love the puzzle that you chose for your family. Our family has become addicted to that style from White Mountain. We've bought the cereal boxes, the move posters, the books and breakfast cereal. Every time we've finished one my daughter has wanted to get another. I generally dislike puzzles and find myself addicted to these because they are very doable and fun. It's nice having success. Just a heads up, though -- we have found that sometimes they are a little off with the pieces. Twice we have been short a piece and once we got an extra!

    Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions.

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    1. OMG, us too! We just did one that had a totally skewed border!

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  11. This is the best. The. Best. Thank you thank you thank you! My kids are getting a slackline, all thanks to you. And the random mini-golf book just arrived for my son and I cannot believe what a perfect tiny gift that is! You are the queen of random awesomeness - and I mean that in a nice way ;-) We have never once gone wrong with any of your recommendations.

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  12. I love, LOVE the ukelele idea! It will be perfect for my son. Thank you:)

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  13. Linda S1:23 PM

    Hi Catherine--thank you for this! Our game closet definitely needs some upgrades. Some of our favorites are: farkle (dice game, totally portable) and blokus (the "travel" edition, for 2 players). Re: books, right now I am totally engrossed in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, and I'm going with Birdy's rec. & getting Counting by 7s for my son. Oh, and this is the puzzle we'll be doing this year: http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Bissell-EMBRACE-Pomegranate-Artpiece/dp/0764948636/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1417630798&sr=1-1&keywords=robert+bissell+puzzle

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  14. State of Wonder was a ridiculously exciting read for me. I had it on audio for my commute and everytime I thought we were to the climax of the book the next section pumped my adrenaline even higher. I so have to read Euphoria. And I'm promptly putting Counting by 7s on my list because I loved Wonder like he was my own child. Has Birdy read "Out of my mind" by Sharon Draper? Oh the juveniles get such good lit nowadays!

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  15. Elizabeth2:25 PM

    Euphoria was one of my favorite books of 2014. Just got My Notorious Life out of the library! Have you read any Rabih Alemeddine? I'm guessing you would love The Hakawati. My kids are Ben & Birdy's ages, and I have a mother/daughter book group with my 11-year old. Has Birdy read The Lions of Little Rock? Or A Greyhound of a Girl? Along with Wonder, these were faves this year.

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    1. Just requested all three from the library! Thank you so much! xo

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  16. Paula4:07 PM

    Let us pause during this festive season of giving to recognize one of the most splendid gifts of all: your cat's absolutely amazing furriness! What a beauty! Is there endless self-grooming going on, or is that pretty much a wake-up-and-go look?

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    1. He is obsessed with washing, FYI. xo

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  17. A great grab and go whether it be in the car or to the bathroom are the Extreme Dot to Dot books. If you haven't tried them, they are super! I love them as much as the kids.

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  18. Anonymous9:53 AM

    I ordered the pens for my son, can't wait to see how he likes them. And can I just say, Ben's fingers are so long! Those are like grown-up hands now.

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  19. Oh, I love your gift lists!! I've ordered ukuleles for both my husband and my 15 y.o. daughter for this Christmas. I don't know what has taken us so long to acquire an ukulele, given that my three daughters were all born on an island in the Pacific, and I've had at least one daughter dancing hula for the past 11 years. I've also added a couple of your game suggestions to my Amazon cart. My girls asked for Xoom Cubes this year...anyone know if that's a good one?

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    1. I don't know! Please report back.

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  20. Great ideas, thx much. Re games (and sorry I've not rechecked your other posts so it may be in your collection already) but Dominion is fabulous. Card based, endlessly changeable, takes about an hour, many expansion sets, many possible strategy tracks, and just plain fun. It made the cut for one of 4 board games that we can take in our camper for the next year on the road :). So did Risk 2012 (which I will NOT play), Cranium, and Settlers of Catan (love!). Other favorites coming are Reverse Charades, The Storymatic (very fun big group story telling thing), Palabra (think card-scrabble with lots of creativity, some devilment, and great word skills), Farkle, and Spot It.

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  21. Anonymous12:40 AM

    Anyone have thoughts for a 3 year old boy? He's the little brother so he already has so much. I don't really think he *needs* anything but I also think he's old enough to feel sad when his 6 year old brother is opening gifts (I've got tons of ideas for him - origami paper, board/card games from Catherine's suggestions, an alarm clock..). But the little one is stumping me! What do you give the newly-turned 3 year old who loves cars but has lots of 'em?! And who's on the younger side of his age to begin with, developmentally? I'm at such a loss. Suggestions gratefully received!

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    1. Magnatiles. The wooden domino set from Hearthsong. A dress up trunk with tons of different options. An art supply trunk is great, with special stuff like stamps (car ones?), dot markers, very basic dot-to-dot (learn numbers!), even a brayer and ink for making prints! Also bath time stuff, like neon paint and cans of shaving cream along with a black light. Sooooo much fun. Just use a popsicle stick and a muffin tin to mix a bit of paint with the shaving cream. It's pretty amazing.

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    2. Anonymous5:26 PM

      Thanks so much for these suggestions, SeeTryFly! We already have magnatiles but the supply trunk idea is perfect, he'll love it! And I'm intensely intrigued by the neon foam bath time idea - wow oh wow. Thank you!

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    3. You guys are the best! I was just telling someone how my kids, at that age, got so much play value out of those colorful play silks. They were an investment, but they used them every day for years.

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  22. Oh do read Counting By 7s! And also Birdy may love Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. I'll second the game Pocket Farkel, which has been in my family for at least two decades and which I still play at least 3-4 times a week with one of my children.

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    1. I'm reading it right now! It is so heartbreaking, but so good. Yes, we play Farkle too! It's a good one.

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  23. Our household is split on the subject of games: one daughter likes fast-paced games with few rules involving language, a la Bananagrams. Her winner of the year is called Word on the Street--a great game for a small group. Another daughter likes strategy games that don't take more than an hour or require an extra brain but require foresight (a la Settlers of Catan, which we actually don't like because the outcomes are too predictable). Two great games in this vein are Takenoko (with adorable panda graphics) and Machi Koro. Hope you get a chance to try these out, and thanks for the suggestions.

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    1. I just ordered BOTH Takenoko and Machi Koro. You've recommended other games that we've loved, I know. What were they? Bohnanza? Hanabi? Tsuro? Remind me!

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    2. Hanabi, I think, and we do love Tsuro, though I'm not sure which of us got to it first. There is a sequel to Tsuro that one or two members of my family have played, but their conclusion is that we don't need to own it--i.e., not quite as good and in the same vein as the original. We've been revisiting an old favorite, Blokus, of late.

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  24. It's funny you mention playing a game wrong in the same paragraph as Monopoly, because I played that incorrectly, too! (You auction off any property that is declined, and there may be something about "Free Parking" too. I don't play it anymore, so I can't really be bothered to relearn the rules.)

    Have you watched Wil Wheaton's Tabletop on Youtube? He plays games with people!

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  25. Thanks for the great ideas! You made shopping easy this year. I love that Tsuro got a nod. We love it too. The creator is my father-in-law's friend, so we've been fans for a long time. I got my nieces the Bored books, and am secretly hoping someone gets them for us!

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  26. I love your recommendations, always. Right after reading your post I ordered Counting by 7s and the Unbored Games book and am super excited to give them to the kids. One note, though - I also ordered the SkyMaul2 book, and (not to sound like a prude or anything) I am really glad I previewed it because it's not really appropriate for my 12 and 8 yr old. Not judging your purchase at all, Ben is older, and I usually don't mind a few bad words or crass jokes, but this one has quite a few f-bombs and some naked/penis related ones. I know they are all jokes, but I'm not quite ready for that one. I think I'll just hold onto it for a few years. It would have made an interesting conversation with the grandparents or a friend's parent, that's for sure! Eek!

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  27. Catherine, did you see this article? It made me think of you!
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-packers-of-catan-green-bays-board-game-obsession-1421346102

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  29. I can see kids really enjoyed the board games, I am going to teach my niece to play games without using any gadget like tablet. =)

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  32. What a thoughtful gift!! Thanks a lot for sharing!

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