Birthdays, Christmas, and other special occasions . . . What might please a young astronaut or astronomer? There is plenty of choice, ranging from the cheap and nasty to the expensive and wonderful. We'll disregard the cheap and nasty. As for expensive, it's up to you to decide how special the occasion is. But here are some ideas for you.
However you shop, I would recommend Amazon to you as a resource. You may need to look in different categories with the word “astronomy”, as there is a lot of overlap. You'll find ideas, but more importantly, many items have user reviews. These are useful even if you don't shop online.
If you have a planetarium or science center within reach, their shops usually have a selection of astronomy-based toys, T-shirts, books, posters, stickers, planispheres and more. Usually, the goods specify the intended age range and are of good quality. And don't forget that a visit to such a place can itself be a lovely gift. Consider IMAX theaters too, as there are some superb space and astronomy films.
Anyone wanting to learn what's in the sky needs a guide. There are sets of sky maps in books, but a planisphere is easy to carry around. You can set it to show what's in the sky at different dates and times, making it useful all year round. Planispheres are widely available through astronomy magazines, astronomy supply stores and many online sites. A reminder: we don't all see exactly the same part of the sky, so check that the planisphere is okay for the latitude of the person you're buying it for.
I'm a great advocate of books and there are many good astronomy books around. However, beware, because there are also many that aren't very good and I've seen a number of flashy ones with little substance and big inaccuracies. (The worst of them often don't even have an author listed - I'm not surprised.) If you've seen a book, but can't make up your mind about it, look for reviews online to help you. For example, I have reviewed several books and so have other astronomy sites.
A book I do recommend serves both as a good introduction and a good learn-more source for ages 8-14. This is the Ian Ridpath book Exploring Stars and Planets. It's well-written with good illustrations, as well as being both attractive and accurate. If you live in the UK, northern Europe, Canada or one of the US states bordering it, the Philip's Astronomy Starter Pack contains the book, a poster of the Solar System and a glow-in-the-dark planisphere.
For astronomers without a planisphere that glows in the dark, a rather nice present would be a little flashlight with a red light. This allows both the reading of star maps and avoidance of obstacles in the dark, without affecting the eye's dark adaptation. By the way, I've noticed laser pointers in the kids section of some online catalogs. Please avoid them. They are not suitable and can be a hazard. Many star parties prohibit their use.
If your young astronomer is already an observer, good binoculars are still a better buy than a telescope. They're easier to use, to store and to transport. They can also be handy for other hobbies. But if you have a serious observer and a viewing site, you may find “Choosing and Using a Telescope” helpful before finally deciding whether it's time for a telescope or not. (There is a link at the end of this article.)
An online business called SpaceToys.com, located in Connecticut, USA, was started by a space enthusiast. Their catalog has a great selection of space-related objects. So that you don't faint at some of the prices, I should warn you that many of their items are genuine collectibles and not toys. They have T-shirts, models, toys, posters, mission patches, software and astronaut food. (Apparently astronaut ice cream is one of their best sellers.)
Any business with a wide selection of jigsaws probably has some astronomy-themed ones. Hubble images are particularly popular. As with any jigsaw, you need to look at its quality and its suitability for the age of the recipient.
Speaking of Hubble images, space writer John Williams created the award-winning Hubble Star Cards. This is a set of 60 playing cards with Hubble Space Telescope images and some information about the objects they show. They can be used to play a number of traditional games – instructions included – or new ones.
Two well-known companies that specialize in putting slogans and pictures on just about anything are Zazzle and Cafe Press. There are hundreds of pages of items that include posters, T-shirts, mugs, hoodies, stickers, bags, notebooks, hats, water bottles, puzzles and more. If you don't see what you want, you can design your own. Both companies operate internationally, so check out the site closest to you to save on delivery charges.
Happy shopping! And if you have any recommendations of your own, let me know.