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Originally appearing at: Bookslut

As the "Best of" book lists start showing up at the end of the year, I am always struck by how repetitive they are. It's like a secret cabal gets together somewhere and decides what the big sellers will be and then insists that they will not stop until every single list everywhere hammers those same books down the throats of holiday shoppers. Finally, after entering yet another Barnes & Noble with a big table up front touting those same titles, the shoppers bow down in defeat and buy the damn books. Then everyone unwraps the same thing and says a collective "What the hell?" to the universe. This is not the sort of holiday scenario I'm especially fond of so I've kept my eye out for offbeat choices that teens (and a little younger) would like to find under their trees this year. There a little bit of something for everyone here, from fashion to dinosaurs to art to classic adventure. All are beautiful, interesting and guaranteed not to show up in the donate bag by New Year's. I start with one that adults will love too and, if the world was a perfect place, would be already be a bestseller.

If you spend any time at all in the science fiction and fantasy section of your local bookstore, you are quite aware of the effect steampunk is making on the genre. While there have been several excellent guides to steampunk released over the past few years (most notably Jeff Vandermeer's The Steampunk Bible), Brian Robb's spectacular oversized Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions is the title fans have been waiting for. With a foreword by James P. Blaylock, one of the three authors along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter credited with "laying the groundwork for a huge explosion of the genre" in the 1970s (Jeter actually coined the term "steampunk"), and chapters on everything from graphic novels to film to Japanese influences, Robb touches on various aspects of the steampunk world with both an academic's precision and fan's excitement. I cannot stress enough, that this title is the complete package and truly a book worth spending serious time with.

While the "Gilded Age" of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs receives a chapter of its own (rightly so), Robb also gives plenty of attention to the work of contemporary artists like authors Gail Carriger and Bryan Talbot and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. He writes of "Victorian Fantasies" and "Clockwork Graphics" and nods to Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, Stephen Hunt, and many more. In fact, other than sadly overlooking young adult titles, Robb manages to touch on pretty much every aspect of the steampunk world, including a welcome nod to the great Ada Lovelace (and author Masaki Yamada's graphic novel Ada). Readers and filmgoers will find a lot to enjoy, but the sections on music and machinery, artwork, and museums cannot be missed. More than anything though, the design is what puts Steampunk over the top, from the cover to the end papers to the stunning full color illustrations. Robb gives his readers history to ponder, pretty things to look at, and countless stories to follow up on later. It's simply wonderful and left me with a great list of books and more that I cannot wait to get my hands on.

Lucky cofounder and longtime fashionista Andrea Linett has crafted a very unique and visually appealing style memoir with I Want to Be Her!: How Friends & Strangers Helped Shape My Style. Linnet devotes a couple of pages to each source of her sartorial inspiration, from childhood through the present day. Accompanied by washed color illustrations from Anne Johnson Albert, this is a beautiful peek into one woman's lifetime closet and an excellent source of inspiration.

Linnet cut her fashion teeth at Sassy, where she ultimately became the fashion and beauty editor, and later joined Harper's Bazaar as a fashion writer. From the evidence presented in the book, though, it is clear she has been interested all her life in what people wear and how their clothing choices fit their personalities. This fascination has colored the memories and impressions of people she has met for only a moment -- passed in the street even -- and those she has loved her whole life. All of them receive equal billing in I Want to Be Her! making the book a collage of styles ranging from "leather biker jacket, skinny black (always ripped) jeans, combat boots and chains" to "giant beige corduroy overalls and a handmade turbanlike patchwork hat." The range is immense and Linnet's friendly writing style is equal parts nostalgic and sardonic observation. This is a book to read for sheer pleasure the first time and for ideas every single time after that. It's the best stocking stuffer for any girl who loves Rookie.

Cinephiles will find a lot to love about Caroline Young's Classic Hollywood Style. While focusing heavily on the careers of such Hollywood costume greats as Edith Head (readers interested in a YA novel about a Head devotee should certainly check out Sara Ryan's coming-of-age tour de force The Empress of the World), Young works her way through movies from the silent era up to the 1968 Steve McQueen classic The Thomas Crown Affair, all the while taking a long look at who wore what and how the clothes affected the films.

There are a ton of photographs in this title, as there should be, and they include both the shocking (the flesh in the early 1930s is really unexpected) to the sublime (Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca! Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not! Audrey Hepburn in everything!). But Young is not just interested in showing pretty pictures; each chapter includes observations on costume budgets, the interplay between stars and costumers, and the all too easily overlooked but important ways in which clothing is used as a tool to explain the characters. When we see the final product and the films succeed, we don't think twice about what is worn onscreen -- we just know the characters are believable to the story. But the work that goes on to make that all look easy is what Young finds fascinating, and she provides multiple examples of movies both famous and forgotten for readers to peruse. Classic Hollywood Style thus ends up being attractive, informative, and will provide readers with a long list of wonderful old films to track down and watch.

The idea behind Gerald Guerlais and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi's Sketchtravel is alone the stuff of creative dreams. In 2006, the two friends decided to share a sketchbook, and then took the idea a gigantic step further and developed a list of other artists around the world to include in the project. After "hundreds of emails, telephone calls, meetings and miles," the sketchbook was sent on a journey around the world. The rules were simple for the seventy-one participants: turn the page, make your art and then physically hand off the sketchbook. It always traveled from person to person and most of the sketches include photos of these exchanges, which were initially included on the book's website.

Some of the more famous names in Sketchbook include Hayao Miyazaki, Glen Keane, Frédéric Back, and Taiyo Matsumoto. From collage to oils to gouache and more, multiple media and styles were explored. Some of the sketches are angry, some sweet, and many will make you laugh. The variety is staggering, and the fact that so many were accomplished in a matter of days (if not hours) makes them even more impressive. In their accompanying notes, the artists often noted their trepidation over the project, especially after seeing the work of those who held the sketchbook before them. As there is not a disappointment in the bunch, it seems hard to believe that any of them could have been nervous, but for young artists especially, it will be heartening to read of their concerns.

Sketchtravel is an obvious source of artistic inspiration for young artists, and with its full color, glossy pages and a heavy textured cover, it is an object to both admire and appreciate. It's a unique initial concept that has resulted in a one in a million collection.

One of the more unexpected titles to come my way in recent months is Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle. This reissue of Conan Doyle's original diary from his 1880 voyage on the whaling vessel Hope is fascinating both as a historical document and for its insight into the mind of a literary giant. Every time Conan Doyle made an allusion to a nautical past in Sherlock Holmes, its roots were in the Hope. But you don't need to be a Conan Doyle scholar to enjoy the hell out of Dangerous Work. This is a title to read as literary and whaling history and, at its most basic, one young man's journey into a dangerous place and having his adventure.

The University of Chicago Press rolls out the royal treatment for Conan Doyle with their design, providing an entire facsimile of the diary in the first half of the volume. The pages are sepia, Conan Doyle's drawings are crisp, his maps are clear, his renderings of the Hope, the animals they encountered and his crewmates are all gorgeously reproduced (this is the kind of diary we all dream of keeping), and he tells his story in perfect script, on straight lines, in a manner that begs to be read. But if the diary is hard on the eyes, the editors have kindly provided it in type with nearly two hundred explanatory footnotes in the book's second half. Also, Jim Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, editors of a collection of Conan Doyle's letters and his first novel, provide both an introduction and a follow-up for what happened in the years after the Hope's voyage. There is also "The Glamour of the Arctic," an article by Conan Doyle first published in 1892, and the short story "The Captain of the 'Pole-Star'" from 1883. So readers get to fully immerse themselves in this long overlooked Conan Doyle experience and revel in an object of singular publishing achievement. I can't imagine being the student who brings up this book in the classroom during a discussion of English literature. Between Robert Downey, Jr. and the Arctic, Arthur Conan Doyle just gets cooler as the years go by.

With Unusual Creatures, Michael Hearst has put together a large format book that uses a twenty-first-century sense of humor to explore the lives and habits of selected animals in a very nineteenth-century way. Using hand drawn illustrations, softly tinted matte pages, and a rich field guide feel, Heart's muted style stands out from other animal books. He provides all the standard information, distribution, scientific name, and classification, and there is a brief encyclopedic description for each subject, but he also gives readers the oddest of facts (Salvador Dali had a pet giant anteater). Occasional silly pop quizzes and poems are certain to provide a quick laugh. Unusual Creatures is an unexpected but engaging way to learn about some overlooked creatures (the blobfish! the hammer-headed bat! the tardigrade!) that rarely receive the coffee table treatment. It works for the widest range of age groups and should be a winner with everyone who comes across it.

I would be remiss here if I did not mention one of the few Christmas books to come my way that has all the marks of a future holiday classic. The Lost Christmas Gift by Andrew Beckham has an old fashioned style that is both heartwarming and sentimental without being cloying. Framed as a discovered story based on a package lost for decades in the mail, The Last Christmas Gift is about a father and son who become lost in a sudden snowstorm while hiking in the mountains for their Christmas tree. A book within a book, the narrator rediscovers a warm childhood memory by the paging through the notebook his father created so many years ago and lost.

The main text, from the contemporary narrator, frames the notebook, which has sepia pages, handwritten (but easily read) text, and inked illustrations. The holiday story is in those pages, about the hike, the storm, and the sudden appearance of someone -- Santa? -- who provides much needed assistance. Beckham has included photographs in the notebook as well, and hand drawn overlays add an aura of mystery. The combination of textural styles, from the straightforward text to the antiqued notebook, makes this a rich reading experience. Readers will enjoy it, but designers in particular need to take note -- this is how you make a book that will last for generations as part of a family holiday reading tradition.

Rounding out the titles I think should be on everyone's shopping list are a few of the picture book variety that I think have been terribly overlooked. Hannah Bonner's Cartoon PreHistory series for National Geographic continues with the third volume, When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight. In her inimitable style, with full color illustrations, comes a ton of information on the time period (the Triassic this time) and a plethora of humorous comic strips that all make a hysterical but entirely factual point. Middle grade (or younger) dino lovers will eat up Bonner's work, but anyone who has ever sought a better understanding of prehistory needs to give these books a read; the format is highly entertaining and quite successful at imparting an enormous amount of information. These are books that will truly grow with young readers.

Art lovers should check out Coppernickel Goes Mondrian, Wouter van Reek's salute to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. With the naïve Coppernickel as our guide, Mr. Quickstep (aka Mondrian) seeks the future and pushes the boundaries of his work. Coppernickel takes him and goes looking for the future in the city. In big, bold graphic illustrations, van Reek shows Mr. Quickstep finding his new innovative style and Coppernickel embracing all that it has to offer (which includes some great music -- also part of the Mondrian story). An afterword provides information on the artist that older readers will appreciate. The young ones will want to see the illustrations again and again. The kooky characters (and their two endearing dogs) with their madcap adventures prove too appealing to ignore.

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane's Musical Journey by Gary Golio with paintings by Rudy Gutierrez offers a completely different artistic perspective. Golio's story explores the life of the jazz great who faced some tremendous challenges, but Gutierrez heightens the book with an explosion of color and expressive style. The artwork mirrors Coltrane's sound, and as Golio takes readers through his life, the paintings are alternately poignant, buoyant, and devastating. Music fans will like what author and illustrator have done here -- they are perfect match for their subject -- but artistic teens are going to want to lose themselves in what Gutierrez has accomplished. This is what a picture book should be, and why I think that the format works so well for readers far beyond the standard audience. Yes, a ten-year-old will find Spirit Seeker interesting but a fifteen-year-old or twenty-five-year-old is also going to be dazzled by it. Pair it with some Coltrane CDs and you have a real treasure to unwrap.

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