I said I'd never do it, but last Christmas, I caved. I spent $50 on a video game – I know Lego and Star Wars were both involved, an unseemly and inevitable collaboration – plus whatever Amazon charges to ship in a day or two and avoid the riot of cortisol-charged shoppers at Best Buy or Toys R Us. I was told that this was what he wanted, so, fine. I've been an auntie since I was sleeping through first-year courses at the University of Toronto (I eventually got it together, don't worry). I am technically a cool aunt, even if I don't understand the screen obsessions of the dudes I used to wrap up in blankets, like burritos.
On Christmas morning, of which I will spare you the details (actually, here are some: pitch black; hot coffee; wrapping-paper hurricane), my nephew, D., opened his present, said, "I have this already" and dropped it on the floor.
I don't really like the way that people, childless or otherwise, characterize the terrible, thoughtless things that children say and do. For real, my nephew – only one of six kids that I aunt – is a muffin, a cartoon-eyed smartie whom I love more than anyone (except the other five). He was just doing Christmas the way kids do Christmas, and I wasn't mad, but I knew that I would never again abandon my original plan, which is to buy them books, only books, and maybe some art supplies if they're lucky.
As a writer and reader, the opportunity to choose books for my sisters' children was that one particular thing that I was and am so (and so selfishly) excited for, in the same way that men want to play catch with their kids one day. I want them to know books as I know books; I want to get to know them through books; I want them to know me through books, through my influence and choices. (I also wanted to secretly monitor their libraries for dumb or sexist garbage, although I have given in to the pink-princess demands of my youngest niece. It's a way to insist on my role, even though I live somewhere else and get bored during their hockey games. So this Christmas, my six nieces and nephews – four boys, two girls, ages 11, 10, 8, 8, 8 and 3, between my two sisters – will get just books from me.
Since I'm a decade younger than their moms, I occupy an unusual place in the kids' lives: They know I'm not a child, because I'm not in school and I look like a grown-up, but they're pretty sure I'm not actually grown up, since I just show up sometimes to hang out and play for a while, and don't have a house or kids. What they do know is that I'm a writer for the newspaper – sometimes they watch me type (I'm fast; it's exciting) – and that I'm a book person, or "book auntie," who has been buying them books since they were born.
Most of the kids – actually, all of them – are more interested in and oriented toward their Nintendo DS or iTouch or Xbox or a contraband, adults-only iPad. I guess that's to be expected, these days; I've always loved books but I know all about the dopamine-allure of a blinking screen. In theory, at least, all of the kids like to read, it just sometimes takes some doing, and a book-as-gift is an efficient way to guilt them into sitting down with you for a few minutes to read, or to read on their own if they know they'll be quizzed about the book later.
"You always buy nice, quality books," my eldest sister said. "You also get them books they probably wouldn't pick out for themselves. And our local library sucks, and as if I have time to go there anyway." I like to choose them all myself, based on some aunt-ish, writer-ish alchemy of positive messages, nice aesthetics and smart content.
There are some misses. The classics never really fly, or at least not yet. Almost Everything, by Joelle Jolivet, is currently hidden in an eight-year-old's closet, because it turns out I bought him "a naked book."
"In the middle they discovered labelled naked bodies – they were riveted," my sister said. "The giggling went on for hours. Thanks for that." Usually, though, there are wins: My video-game nephew got an e-mail printout (burn!) on his birthday, confirming his new subscription to National Geographic Kids. He wasn't that interested, but months later my middle sister texted me a photo of him reading in the family room, deep into the magazine, television off.
The kids know what they're getting. My oldest nephew smiles and yells, "It's a book!" no matter what size or shape a present is. (He's usually right.) They seem to like our ritual, though; I think that getting something real, not a download, with their name written inside and picked out just for them, might feel good.
In my favourite picture of the youngest, he is in jammies, holding his new copy of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site in front of his face. When my nephew M. was into the Wimpy Kid franchise, I got him A Walk in New York, by Salvatore Rubbino, a big, dreamy book with painted illustrations that he loved (yay!), especially before a weekend trip to NYC.
I've bought them everything from weird comics to sports encyclopedias to their first novels. "The kids love that you write an inscription in the front, and they always fight over whose book it is," my sister says, which thrills me, both the love and the fighting. When my oldest niece read to me from a book that I'd once read – yes, when I was her age – and asked me questions, and told me what she thought the main character was thinking about, I felt like I got what I wanted; I got my game of catch.
Kate Carraway writes The Jungle column for The Globe and Mail, and is a columnist with VICE and The Grid.