We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.
I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.
Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.
“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.
This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.
Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.
This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!
This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)
Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.
Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.
How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.
Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.
We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.
This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound. Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.
Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.
I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.
My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think. A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations, or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.
Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.
By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.
The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.
Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.
With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”
Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.
This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.
42.Portable Bluetooth speaker, about $37
Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.
Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!
Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.
Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.
Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.
You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)
Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.
My FB friend Jeni Wilmot suggested a topic for Mark Shea’s radio show, which I co-host on Mondays (podcasts here). It didn’t make it on the show, but it was a brilliant idea: Catholic Would You Rather.
In college, we used to call this game “Boots or Shakespeare.” It started out easy: Coke or Pepsi? Swimming or skiing? and progressed onto harder choices: Would you rather be deaf or blind? Frozen or burned? Always lonely or never, ever alone?—the idea being that your choices were mutually and permanently exclusive. Once you chose one, the other was off limits for good.
The choices were also supposed to be sort of existential opposites of each other, but I guess I’ve gotten dumber since I left college, because I can’t think of any good examples. Anyway, I knew I had won when my friend James would make the “ouch, my head just exploded” gesture.
Here are a few Catholic Style Boots or Shakespeare questions to get you started. Would you rather . . .
–be trapped in a broken elevator with an 18-year-old guy who just found out about The Fountainhead, or an 18-year-old guy who just found out about distributism?
How about vidya games? My kids play games on the Wii, PS2, and occasionally the iPad and PC. We have tons of the Lego Wii games, and they were all the rage at our house for a few years. These are cute, clever, and not too noisy or violent (people just turn back into separate pieces when they get killed). Have’t found a bad one yet.
Here are some of my kids’ other current favorite games. I asked them to give a quick description, plus their favorite and least favorite aspects of the game. Then I added my take, as someone who doesn’t especially like video games, who worries about bad influences on the kids, but who isn’t especially restrictive. We don’t have any particular interest in very violent, scary, or gross games like Resident Evil or Call of Duty. Bracketed comments are mine.
17-year-old girl says:
It’s a Zelda-type action adventure, but everything looks like a Japanese sumi-e painting. You are Amaterasu, the sun goddess, incarnated as a white wolf, and you use celestial brush techniques to paint symbols. You draw symbols in the air to manipulate the world around you — like, you draw a swirly thing to summon a gust of wind. You can fill in gaps in bridges, trail fire from a torch to a pile of brushwood, stuff like that. The goal is to save Japan from evil spirits, which, you know. [I don’t actually know.]
Best part: The best part is that it’s a serious, hard-core adventure game that also rewards you for feeding animals and caring for plants. You collect praise points for helping to restore nature, or helping people, or just being nice, like feeding a kitten. That’s not the main point of the game, but I like that it’s this elaborate adventure, and you get points for being nice to kitties.
Worst part: I hate the sidekick. I want to kill him and I want him to shut up.
My take: Looks weird and gorgeous. I don’t mind having this one in the house at all.
11-year-old boy says:
It’s about a raccoon thief who beats people up and steals stuff, but he’s a good guy. Sort of. In the first one, he’s trying to steal back his family’s guide for how to be a sneaky thief.
Best thing about it: The graphics are great. The characters are very well thought out, and there is good voice acting, except for when they’re supposed to be surprised.
Something I don’t like: it’s kind of annoying that Sly always smiles, even when he falls off a cliff and dies.
My take: The voices are really obnoxious, and the few female characters strike me as unnecessarily sultry. I would just as soon see these games go away, but both boys (the other one is 13) love these three game to pieces, so there must be something there. The fighting isn’t too graphic. It’s fairly flashy and the sound effects are kind of grating.
9-year-old girl says:
It’s a game where you pick a song to dance to, and you can earn points by dancing like they are dancing on the screen
Best thing about it: I’m not too good at games where you have to fix up a problem, and I’m pretty good at games where you just follow the moves of what is on the screen. It’s a good, easy game for all ages.
Something I don’t like: It doesn’t have Taylor Swift. Some of the dance moves areinapwo-pwo, and we have to skip some of the songs, like “Toxic,” “That’s Not My Name,” and a few others, because they’re sassy and weird and dumb, and sometimes the dances are just inappropriate.
My take: Silly, active fun, except for that one kid who discovered that you can get a perfect score while sitting in a chair and moving your wrist around. Great for an ice breaker at parties, because it gets you moving but everyone is looking at the screen, not at you. Most of the songs are just goofy; a few are too sexy (lyrics and dance moves), so we just skip those. (I actually prefer having the kids get used to the idea that you have to pick and choose and say “no” to some things and “yes” to others, rather than just flat-out forbidding anything that might be, well, inapwopwo, because eventually they’re going to have to tell themselves how to spend their time.)
15-year-old girl says:
It’s made for Gamecube, so if you’re using the Wii, you have to use a Gamecube controller instead of a Wii remote. You also need a memory stick for the Wii. There is also an HD version for the Wii U.
It’s an adventure game and a puzzle game, and you have to defeat puzzles and dungeons and bosses, to get different items. The point of the game is to defeat Gannandorf, the evil bad guy, and save Hyrule and your sister, and make your grandma proud of you.
Best part: It’s an exciting game, but the graphics are absolutely adorable, and the characters are all really funny. I like the Snot Kid, and the way all the characters look.
Something I don’t like: It’s set in a sea, and it takes a while to get from island to island, and you get lost really easily.
My take: I honestly don’t get what the big deal is about all this Zelda stuff, but it doesn’t bother me. A few of the videos are quite pretty. The music isn’t too loud or annoying, and it’s not one of those awful frenetic games. Just a lot of running and hopping, as far as I can see.
15-year-old girl says:
It’s a sort of dark twist on forgotten old Disney cartoons, but in a cool way – not a stupid emo hipster kind of thing. [You know. Stupid emo hipster.] You play as Mickey, and get sucked into a world called “Wasteland,” where all forgotten cartoon characters live, and you have to defeat the Mad Doctor and the Blot Creature. You have the power of ink and thinner so you can paint and erase things to your advantage.
Best part: It’s kind of dark and scary at times. It’s got this great morality thing, and sometimes you have a choice of helping a gremlin or getting money, and if you help, you get even more money, or a reward, and you also get the gremlin’s reward later in the game, so it’s got that going for it. It’s not a serious gamer game, but it’s still fun.
Don’t like: It encourages you to use paint more than thinner when defeating bosses, but it’s really difficult. It’s just frustrating.
My take: She’s not kidding about dark twist! Some parts of this game scare the three-year-old. I hear a lot of frustration when they are playing this game, so it’s best for kids who are persistent. Graphics are super detailed and imaginative and have a lot of depth, and it’s fun for the kids to spot obscure cartoon characters.
14-year-old girl says:
It’s an action adventure game in the style of the Tomb Raider series, but it’s Indiana Jones. The goal is to get an artifact from the tomb of an emperor, but it’s really convoluted. (We have the PS2 and Windows versions. Apparently this game is “backwards compatible, which means that if you have a PS3 or 4, you can play this PS2 on it.)
What I like: Nice detailed graphics, and the combat is a lot of fun except for when you blow yourself right after Indy says, “Hope I don’t blow myself up.” It has good voice overs. You have to solve puzzles and beat up Nazis.
Don’t like: This is pretty much the only game I’ve played besides all the Lego games. I would make a setting for people who have never played video games before so it’s for them. [There is an easy mode. She may not be aware of this.]
My take: Meh, I’m not crazy about this one, but they’ve been playing it for years now, and no one has turned into a felon yet. My husband likes it.There is so, so much punching, but it’s not bloody or anything, and it seems like it takes a long time to beat all the levels, so that’s a plus. We have picked up a lot of family catch phrases from this game. The voice really does sound like Harrison Ford, and I get to wow the kids by putting my high school German to use (“The American! Kill him!”).
17-year-old girl says:
It’s my all time favorite game. It’s my first ever Zelda game, and you always think the first Zelda game you play is the best one. But objectively, I firmly believe it is the best one in the series. The main plot is that you’re trying to rescue Hyrule from this evil, alternate dimension that is trying to turn everyone into ghosts. It’s a very Japanese game.
Best part: It creates such an elaborate world, you can really get lost with everything you can interact with. It has a great plot and great characters. There’s one scene where one of the characters is dying and you have to bring her to the castle, and it’s the most concerned I’ve ever felt about a character. You get really emotionally involved. Also, it’s just gorgeous and the game play is crazy. It really feels like you’re doing these things. It makes me feel cool. Link does things I could never do. He has all these crazy abilities. That sounds lame, but that’s what they’re trying to do: get you immersed in rhe game.
Don’t like: Uh, I thought I mentioned that this has no flaws whatsoever? Probably the best cel shaded game I’ve ever seen, kind of crazy gorgeous, and so creepy sometimes. It sets you up, introduces you to this world to make you feel secure, and then changes the world suddenly. It really throws you off your balance. It has this innocent fairy tale vibe, and then really strange, creepy things happen.It has some really dark elements to it. The creepiest thing is when it kind of changes the rules on you, and shows you things that don’t belong. Unsettling in the best way.
. . . now we have What Would I Say? — the app that sifts through your old Facebook statuses and comments, scrumbles them around, and makes them into new statuses which sound almost human, and almost just like you.
A couple of my favorites from SomechopBot (“Somechop” is my Facebook name because never mind):
“Benny has tucked her halfeaten apple inside my shirt and her hand in a bona fide theologian!”
“Update he’s lost four new tires, and a skirt, two separate solutions, if possible.”
“We’re just too stupid tired”
“I too have children, we do the corrections I ask for, but never overreact, that’s me.”
“Im just trying to persuade us NOT to make fake blood”
Honestly, I laughed even harder when I plugged in my husband’s Facebook statuses. It sounds just like him having an angry fever.
“No one but a giant, mustached man in a serious argument against sobriety.”
“At 13, he was apprenticed to kill some maggots.”
“The worst To be sure, if Herman Cain were the second helping on potato chips? Daddy Supper.”
“Killed 97 zombies, not the next best day in some cases like the opposite of deodorant.”
“Wonderpets, what do not support the current Pope.”
“I need to find a 2002 Taurus station wagon and a shoot out”
Aw, go ahead, try it. All the cool kids are doing it, somewhat with a brittle and sticky anniversary, anyway.
Loosely translated: “Sometimes, / When I look deep in your pants, / I swear I can see your soul.”
Ha ha! Just kidding. But remember that terrible song “Sometimes” by that medium-terrible band, James? James: because what the world needs now is more Irishmen singing. He didn’t actually say “pants,” but it would have been a better song if he had. Hey, and look, it’s a bunch of guys wearing dresses! I suppose this is all my fault, too. Not the bananas, though.
In the past week, there has been a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, it’s mostly been people searching each other’s souls and — you’ll never guess! — finding them wanting.
I, of course, am not guilty of this. No, I certainly haven’t spent the last several days wrapped in a semi-hysterical nimbus of self-righteousness. I haven’t been following my husband around and making him reassure me, over and over and over again, that I’m a perfectly good wife most of the time. My prayer life hasn’t consisted mostly of, “Did you hear that guy?!?”
Well, just to show that I can be old-fashioned, too, let’s go back in time and revisit and old game — and do a little soul-searching of our own souls for a change. Not such a scenic route, is it? I think there’s a whole series of books out on it by now, and I remember that Ironic Catholic had a contest at one point. It’s so much fun: Six Word Autobiographies.
We just discovered a new family game! My 12-year-old daughter, who taught it to us, scornfully insists that it’s actually called “Excuses,” and not (sneer) “Excuses, Excuses,” but I think it’s funnier my way, and anyway, who is she? Does she have a blog? Oh, well, actually, she does. But we are good parents, and don’t let anyone look at it. Ha ha!
Anyway, we’ve been playing this new game in the evening after supper, when it’s too darn hot to be inside, but no one wants to fish the football out of the bushes. It’s good for ages 6 to adult, I would say, and it’s very easy to drop in and out of. It’s also entertaining to watch, if you can’t, won’t, or are too fat to play.
The basic set-up is this: one person is the boss, one person is the employee who is late for work, and one person is the co-worker. The boss faces the employee, and the co-worker stands behind the boss, so the employee can see him, but the boss cannot.
The boss barks at the employee, “Why were you late?” The employee starts to make his excuses — but he has to describe what the co-worker is miming. Remember, the boss can’t see him.
So the co-worker is marching, dancing, swatting imaginary flies, being strangled, fighting invisible gorillas, etc., and the employee is narrating it.
Then the boss, at any point he wants to, whips his head around to and yells at the co-worker, “What are you doing?” And the co-worker has to instantly come up with a plausible explanation for whatever he was caught doing. If he was acting out “killing a bear with my teeth,” for instance, he might say, “Oh, I was just eating one of these crullers. Thanks for the crullers, boss!”
If the boss likes the excuse, he says, “Okay,” and the game resumes. But if he doesn’t, he says, “You’re fired!” and the next person gets to be the co-worker.
Did I explain that right? It’s seriously a lot of fun, and I’m so happy to know it, because if we had to play Simon Says one more time, Simon was going to say–
Well, I gave it a whole hour and a half, and even Googled “go play in traffic,” but I didn’t get to the end of that joke. Sorry, folks. Refunds at the door.