The search for personal identity and young people dealing with modern challenges figure prominently in notable new books for children and teens, including several by local authors. (Disclosure: the Bay Area children's writers community is small and collegial. I know the writers and illustrators.) Listen up, parents: these books are not just for kids.
The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany's Gift of Hope
by Daryn Reicherter, illustrated by Christy Hale; $15; Tuttle Publishing; ages 4-8.
Stanford psychiatrist Daryn Reicherter gracefully tells the story of a Cambodian dancer and survivor of the Khmer Rouge who now teaches ancient Cambodian dance to children in San Jose.
Sophany was a premier dancer in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over her country. Dr. Reicherter and award-winning Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale convey the horrible history of that takeover with honesty and sensitivity, then show the healing power of dance and how it can instill hope in refugees and cultural continuity for their children.
"The Cambodian Dancer" includes a Khmer translation of the text and an explanatory author's note.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova
by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad; $18; Chronicle Books; ages 5-8.
Before Sophany, there was Anna Pavlova, a Russian prima ballerina who had a major impact on ballet. In poetic text and stunning illustrations, "Swan" shows how attending a performance of "The Sleeping Beauty" inspires the daughter of a single mother laundress not to give up trying to get into ballet school even though she's too thin and her feet are all wrong. Yet she works hard and changes dance to fit her style. Anna dances for royalty, but also for those in remote areas of the globe poor people, as she once was until a train accident in the snow gives her a chill that leads to her death.
This lyrical biography is enhanced by a note from the author filling in the details of Pavlova's life and influence.
Sunny Side Up
by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; $13 paperback; Graphix/Scholastic; ages 8-12.
The brother-sister creators of the bestselling Babymouse books for younger readers here produce an autobiographical graphic novel dealing with a serious subject that's surprisingly funny.
Ten-year-old Sunny's summer with her Florida grandfather isn't the vacation she envisioned. Grampa lives in a retirement community with a bunch of old people, and she has to sleep on a squeaky, uncomfortable hide-a-bed. But that's better than what she had back home in Pennsylvania with a violent, probably drug-addicted teenage brother.
Sunny hangs out with Gramps and "the girls" and makes friends with the groundskeeper's son, Buzz. He introduces her to comics and comic book heroes. Sunny learns that superheroes can't save everyone, and neither can she. She decides she doesn't want to keep secrets anymore, especially about her brother.
The authors end with a note encouraging kids in families struggling with substance abuse not to feel ashamed or blame themselves, and to talk about it.
by Alex Gino; $17; Scholastic; ages 8-12.
George is a fourth-grader and the only one who knows she's a girl. "George" is a groundbreaking novel by an Oakland author about a kid who wants what a lot of kids want: to be seen as they truly are, along with, perhaps, a certain part in the class play. In George's case, her family at first misunderstands her "differentness" George isn't gay, she's transgender. She's bullied at school and isn't allowed to try out for the part of Charlotte in "Charlotte's Web" because, of course, her teacher sees her as a boy. Thank goodness George has best friend Kelly in her life. Kelly comes to acknowledge George as her new girlfriend Melissa, and not only helps George with the "Charlotte" dilemma, but also shows Melissa how much fun being a girl can be. Parents: read this book with your kids over winter break.
by Joanne Stewart Wetzel; $16; Sky Pony Press; ages 8-12.
Palo Alto author and self-proclaimed theater geek Joanne Stewart Wetzel's middle-grade novel is certain to appeal to young people who love being on stage or backstage, or who simply enjoy a fast-paced book about a determined kid and her family and friends. The plot has as many twists and turns as Lombard Street. Bonus: it's set in a fictional Peninsula town.
Twelve-year-old Beth has been in 12 plays at Oakfield Children's Theater. She lives to be on stage, and is also becoming a young Shakespeare scholar. Her dream part is Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet." She thinks that may happen someday, and then she hears rumors the theater is going to close. In her quest to save her favorite place in the world from eviction, Beth makes some bad choices and pays the price. Yet even while being grounded she manages to deepen her devotion to Shakespeare and, ultimately, to use her studies to the theater's advantage. Brava!
by Rebecca Stead; $17; Wendy Lamb/Random House; ages 10-14.
In another Rebecca Stead gem, three longtime best friends navigate seventh grade on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with varying degrees of success.
Bridge wonders if there's a reason she's alive after being hit by a car when she was 8. She likes to wear cat ears on a headband and is becoming friends with a boy, Sherm, whose grandfather up and left the family recently. Soccer star Emily is being asked by an older boy for cellphone pictures an exchange that begins innocently and escalates. Third pal Tabitha discovers social justice and activism, but her attempt at civil disobedience backfires. Bridge, Em and Tab may have to break their longtime rule about no fighting.
Older teens aren't having it any easier: a mystery high school girl can't face the consequences of something stupid she did. Bridge's older brother makes silly bets he always loses. And Em's soccer teammate may not be the friend she purports to be.
Once again Newbery medalist Stead weaves plot threads with precision and fillips of humor. Read this one at least twice to see how it all comes together.
Paint My Body Red
by Heidi R. Kling; $14 paperback; Entangled Teen; ages 13 and up.
"Paint My Body Red" is Palo Alto author Heidi R. Kling's response to local teen suicides: a story of Silicon Valley high school students who have enormous academic pressure and irresponsible parents, where suicide on the train tracks becomes contagious. (This is not a chronicle of real people and events. The author did not know the specific circumstances of local victims.)
Paige Mason's mother is a CEO with a new husband and stepson who was accused of date rape in New York. Paige and her stepbrother are left alone in the house. What could possibly go wrong?
The novel begins after graduation and the sixth suicide, when Paige is sent to spend the summer with her father on his Wyoming ranch. Senior year has left her a physical and emotional wreck, wracked with guilt. She arrives to find Dad dying of ALS (Mom hadn't told her). Paige has trouble getting over the bad times in California ("Then" chapters) even as she heals in Wyoming ("Now" chapters) with the help of a hot cowboy and a horse to break.
"Paint My Body Red" is ultimately a hopeful and important book for teenagers, and also highly recommended for parents.
Read more holiday stories in the Holiday Guide to Everything.