Name the holiday gift that's easy to pack, won't break the first time it's used and is guaranteed to keep the kids happy for more than five minutes. Even better, this present won't cost big bucks and is something the kids will gladly share -- even with grown-ups.
Nothing could possibly fit that bill, you think. How about a book or a book-on-tape? And thanks to that lovable wizard-in-training Harry Potter, even the most reluctant readers won't groan this year when you pull one out at the airport, in the car or at grandma's house. That's why this year, I'm suggesting traveling stocking stuffers to read or listen to rather than play with.
``Books on tape are a great way to encourage kids to read more and connect them with stories they might not have read otherwise,'' says Julie Cummins, coordinator of Children's Services for the New York Public Library, the largest circulating library in the country.
Parents benefit, too. If a too-long car trip is on your holiday agenda, here's your chance to hear what all the Harry Potter fuss is about. Listen to ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' or ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' along the way -- more than seven hours' worth ($34 on tape, $49.95 on CD from Listening Library, 800-323-9872 or www.randomhouse.com/backyard/order.html).
Little girls who love the historical American Girl dolls -- and their moms who were Nancy Drew fans -- will love the new American Girl historical mysteries, the ``Music of Christmas Past'' CD as well as hip new palm-sized books. They include ``Miles of Smiles Backseat Games,'' which comes complete with a checklist to keep a record of all the different license plates you spot and ``An A-maze-ing Day Book of Mazes.'' (The History Mysteries are $5.95, the CD $14.95 and the Backpack Books $1.95; 800-845-0005 or www.americangirl.com.)
The budding geographers in your house, meanwhile, will have fun along the way with John Cassidy's ``Earthsearch: A Kids' Geography Museum in a Book'' with lots of weird facts and activities like connecting real coins to their countries on the adjacent map (Klutz $19.95; this and other travel books and games are available from Rand McNally, 800-234-0679 or www.randmcnally.com).
Old books can be just as entertaining. Ask grandma to have some of your childhood favorite books on hand when you arrive to read to the kids, spurring family stories of holidays long past. A children's cookbook might also be a good bet for a grandma or aunt who wants to share the joys of the kitchen with a youngster while they're visiting, librarians suggest.
``Share a new book and you're starting a new holiday tradition,'' suggests Columbia University education professor and children's literature expert Barbara Kiefer. ``For every 10 minutes of recreational reading kids do,'' she adds, ``their test scores go up significantly!''
Grandparents often tell prize-winning children's book author Susan Wojciechowski they add holiday books each year to their collection bought especially for visiting grandchildren. ``Once a grandmother who couldn't be with her grandchildren told me she made a tape of herself reading favorite holiday stories and sent one to each grandchild,'' said Wojciechowski, author of ``The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.'' It's a sweet story of how a young boy brings new hope to an embittered New England wood carver who has lost his family ($17.99, Candlewick Press) that has won kudos since it was published in 1995.
If you're visiting family, try a book about families, suggests Julie Cummins, who oversees children's services for the New York Public Library, the nation's largest circulating library with 85 branches. She likes ``Relatively Speaking: Poems about Family,'' by Ralph Fletcher (Orchard, $14.95). The New York Public Library has a list of 100 best 1999 titles divided by age group available by calling Children's Services 212-340-0906. The New York Public Library can be seen on the Web at www.nypl.org.
Of course there are plenty of holiday titles to choose from, too. Caroline Ward, president of the executive committee of the American Library Association, especially likes the new edition of ``The Nutcracker'' retold by Janet Schulman that comes with a CD ($20 from HarperCollins). The American Library Association has a list of 1999 Notable Children's Books on its Web site: www.ala.org. Another favorite of librarians: Barbara Robinson's ``The Best Christmas Pageant Ever'' (HarperCollins $4.95) is a laugh-out-loud story about what happens when a family of ``absolutely the worst kids in the world'' end up with the leading roles in a town's holiday pageant (available on tape from Recorded Books for $19, 800-638-1304 or www.recordedbooks.com). You can also rent this book on tape for $8.50 for 30 days as well as hundreds of other titles, including Isaac Bashevis Singer's ``The Power of Light'' Hanukkah stories and Donna L. Washington's ``The Story of Kwanzaa.''
For younger children, the ALA recommends Stephen Krensky's ``How Santa Got His Job'' (Simon and Schuster, $15) and Uri Shulevitz' ``Snow'' (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $16).
When you're traveling, librarians say, books on tape are a way for kids to sharpen their listening skills. Try ``Under the Mango Tree: Stories From Spanish Speaking Countries'' that won Parents' Choice Honors. (The cost is $12, 817-421-5646 or www.underthemangotree.com.)
Just as important, they offer the opportunity for families to share a story together as well as to entice reluctant readers into the pages of a book, says Joel Shoemaker, an Iowa City, Iowa, middle school librarian and past president of the Young Adults Library Services Association. Go to www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists for lists of recommended paperbacks for young adults as well as audio books.
For family listening in the car, Shoemaker suggests ``Brian's Winter,'' a survival tale and sequel to Gary Paulsen's ``Hatchet'' and read by Richard Thomas (Listening Library, $18).
Be careful, jokes Shoemaker, the kids might not want the trip to end.
(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate