They rarely show up on the lists recited on Santa's lap. Piled with other presents under the tree, they get picked up, weighed and then placed to the side -- no sense rushing to unwrap what is obviously a book.
For all the indifference they induce on Christmas morning, however, children's books make ideal gifts. I remember the year Santa delivered on my passionate plea for a Chatty Cathy doll. We were inseparable at least through New Year's Eve; that infatuation gave way to an abiding love for "Black Beauty," a gift from Mom that carried me through a January bout with the flu.
Here are some suggestions gleaned from the slew of recent releases, but don't hesitate to browse for favorites from your own childhood. If prices seem steep, compare the staying power of a $20 hardback to that of a Ninja Turtle Sewer Sub ($19.99) or a L'il Miss Singing Mermaid ($29.99).
* CLASSICS: Now that Steven Spielberg is making Peter Pan cool again, why not check out the original? Mr. Spielberg's "Hook" apparently remains true to some of the darker aspects of J. M. Barrie's 1904 play, and the unabridged version of the adventure is captured handsomely in a new edition, "Peter Pan" (Viking, $19.95, all ages). Scott Gustafson illustrates the story with 50 full-color oil paintings that, like Peter, will never grow old.
Another story that has been passed down through the years in a sanitized version is that of the Nutcracker. The popular ballet bears little resemblance to the weird and often scary tale written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816. Now out in paperback is a faithful translation of the original, "Nutcracker," illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Crown, $16, all ages). The illustrations alone make this a collector's gem.
For a look at Mr. Sendak's earlier artwork, check out "Seven Tales by H. C. Andersen," translated from the Danish by Eva Le Gallienne (HarperTrophy paperback, $7.95, all ages). First published in 1959, this includes an unabridged version of The Ugly Duckling that will break hearts.
A very different treatment of Hans Christian Andersen is "The Swineherd," retold, adapted and illustrated by Deborah Hahn (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $14.95, ages 5 and up). A cast of pigs, pets and children act out the story as Andersen looks on. But when they get to the sad ending, with the good prince forsaking the greedy little princess, they improvise a happy new conclusion. Cute, but hardly classic.
The cable TV series has reintroduced "The Black Stallion," but n horse lover should miss reading the real thing by Walter Farley, now out in a golden anniversary edition with new illustrations by Domenick D'Andrea (Random House, $15, ages 9 and up).
* COLLECTIONS: The front-page stories these days make Serbia, Latvia, Ukraine and Byelorussia familiar names attached to unfamiliar places. Bringing them to life is a new collection, "Fairy Tales of Eastern Europe," compiled and retold by Neil Phillip, illustrated by Larry Wilkes (Clarion, $19.95, ages 9 and up).
Familiar themes -- a pretty girl tormented by her wicked stepmother and stepsister, a quarreling couple wasting three magical wishes -- and stories of good winning out over injustice make this book at home in families of any ethnic background. It's perfect for reading aloud.
Another great read-aloud choice is "Just So Stories" by Rudyard Kipling, woodcuts by David Frampton (HarperCollins, $19.95, ages 8-12). The 12 original stories are adorned with gorgeous woodcuts -- many full-page illustrations as well as numerous decorations interspersed throughout the text.
Two very different versions of Aesop's Fables are out this winter. For background on the fables and biographical details on Aesop, check out "Aesop & Company, with Scenes from His Legendary Life," prepared by Barbara Bader, pictured by Arthur Geisert (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95, all ages). Bader's scholarly introduction is interesting, and Mr. Geisert's fine etchings could be at home in a 19th century American humor magazine.
"Androcles and the Lion and Other Aesop's Fables" retold in verse by Tom Paxton, illustrated by Robert Rayevsky (Morrow, $13.95, all ages) is the third volume of Aesop that Mr. Paxton has put into verse. The folk singer and songwriter doesn't always pull off the rhyme, but most of the stories are fun to read in sing-song style.
* LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Several local authors have recent releases. The jauntiest is "Gypsy Bird Song" by Susan L. Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14.95, ages 6 and up). Ms. Roth's brilliant collages of cut paper and fabric leap from the pages, and her words bounce you along in a horse-drawn wagon as she takes the reader for a ride through a gypsy family's day. Ms. Roth, who wrote "We'll Ride Elephants Through Brooklyn," has crafted another winner.