Years ago when I graduated from college, my grandmother gave me a copy of “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. I thanked her, put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it … until later. Since then, my appreciation for her gift has grown. The memories of other presents received that day have faded, but Whitman’s iconic collection of poems endures. What a perfect way for my grandmother to have said, “Congratulations! The world is your oyster. Now here’s what a smart person can tell you about what lies ahead.”
As graduation for high-school and college students approaches, I thought it would be useful to ask authors, booksellers and librarians which book they would give to a new graduate and why. Here are their responses.
Betsy Burton, bookseller • I’d give a young woman “Pride and Prejudice” and “All the Light We Cannot See” wrapped in a single package. Why? So she can experience in the back-to-back reading of those two amazing books (one old, one new) the inexhaustible wonder of fiction — and be reminded that books will always be there for her, whether she’s in need of escape, wisdom or pure pleasure.
Jennifer Nielsen, author • “Make Good Art” by Neil Gaiman is really just a pretty book version of a commencement speech given in 2012, but it’s brilliant. This book said everything I wish I had known when I left school: “Make amazing mistakes. … Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
Anne Holman, bookseller • I would give graduates George Saunders’ “Congratulations By the Way,” because it is short, sweet and packed with great advice. The subtitle, “Some Thoughts on Kindness,” is just lovely.
Gene Nelson, librarian • There are so many possibilities, but one keeps coming back to me — “The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember” by Fred Rogers. It’s a wonderful collection of Rogers’ quotes relating to making one’s path through the world.
Matthew Kirby, author • “Instructions” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess. My parents gave it to me when I earned my master’s degree. They told me to go out, slay dragons and make my own fairy tale.
Jan Sloan, bookseller • The best book ever is “The Art of Living” by Epictetus. It is something for people of all ages to read, but especially those just starting out. Ancient, but pertinent wisdom!
Jean Reagan, author • “Dream Big (Olivia)” by Ian Falconer. It pairs illustrations of Olivia with inspirational (and hilarious) quotes from big dreamers: Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc. Everyone should own a copy. ESPECIALLY writers and illustrators!
Vivian Evans, bookseller • Last year I gave my daughter Neil Gaiman’s “Make Great Art.”
Ally Condie, author • Ann Patchett has a book called “What Now?” that I imagine is fantastic for graduates.
Sue Fleming, bookseller • I would try to personalize the book to the graduate’s interests — fishing, golf, crafts, talents, etc.— and give him or her a book for pleasure. Not everyone goes on to college, but everyone can celebrate their personal interests or talents.
Bobbie Pyron, author and librarian • I would give them a copy of my friend Corinne Humphrey’s wonderful, fun book “Shoot for the Moon: Life Lessons from a Dog Named Rudy,” which she also illustrated.
Alison Randall, author • “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch has some really good life advice. He tells about doing something very similar to what Neil Gaiman did. He wrote a list of his dreams and was able to accomplish everything on it — except for playing in the NFL.
Adriane Herrick Juarez, librarian • My book would be “The Power of One” by Bruce Courtenay. This is a novel that teaches us it only takes one person to change the world.
Anne Brillinger, bookseller • A good dictionary, as a reminder that there are thousands of words yet to be learned and ideas and worlds waiting to be discovered (and in the hope that the graduate will often venture outside the spell-check safety net!).
Kristyn Crow, author • Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” is a fun book to give to graduates. “Congratulations! Today is your day! You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!”
Rob Eckman, author and bookseller • “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse. It’s a favorite graduation gift of mine to give, because it’s a story of a journey and a transformation.
Jessica Day George, author • “The Power of One” by Bruce Courtenay, which is not only a beautiful book but gives the excellent advice to think and act first with the head and then with the heart.
Carla Morris, author and librarian • “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl teaches a very basic life lesson: We cannot avoid life’s hardships, but we can choose how we will react to those hardships.
Mette Harrison, author • I think I would recommend reading “Bossypants” by Tina Fey. Funny and a great antidote to all the heavy reading in college. Plus, tons of good information about real life.
Jan Pinborough, author and editor • “The Forest” by Claire A. Nivola — a beautiful book for any graduate who pauses trembling at the gateway to her own future.
Deb Greathouse, librarian • I always like “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. There’s a whole wonderful world out there, so dream big.
Lisa Mangum, author and editor • “Drawing Out the Dragons” by James A. Owen. It’s a wonderfully inspirational book about never giving up and being strong enough to overcome any obstacles that stand in your way.
Sara Larson, author • Though it might seem silly, I honestly love “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss.
Trish Hull, librarian • I think I would give them Clayton Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life.” The time to plan how your life will end up is now.
Margaret Brennan Neville, bookseller • I like giving travel books to graduates. Or the perfect novel. I do strive for perfection with my choices, and I slip money into the book.
Nathan Spofford, bookseller • “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life” by David Foster Wallace. My takeaway is that life, every minute of every day, is either joy or drudgery. The choice is ours, every second of every day.
Sally Larkin, bookseller • I love “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing about Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica.
Robert Kirby, famous columnist • “The Essential Calvin & Hobbes” by Bill Watterson. No matter where we go or what we achieve, we’re still just kids inside.