Not-so-classic holiday books for kids

Six heartfelt stories that shed light on unforgettable life lessons

Stories about disaster, death, anxiety and segregation might not be topics typically associated with a holiday reading list for children, but many of the best children's books published in 2019 touch on these topics. This year, our suggested reading list includes a selection of inspiring and heartfelt narratives aimed at shedding light on some of life's classic lessons — from mourning the loss of a pet to coping with anxiety in the classroom to learning about survival during a disaster.

"Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border" by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Sara Palacios; Farrar Straus Giroux; $18; ages 4-8.

Most Christmas books for children are set in snowy climes. But as we Californians know, kids enjoy the season even when outside temps are above freezing. Holiday tales can even be found on a beach in San Diego where two tall fences between Mexico and the U.S. "... stretch along the border, reaching deep into the sea."

It's there where Maria and her brother, Juan, wait with their mother during a Christmas celebration known as Las Posadas, when small groups of Americans are allowed to enter the area between the fences to visit relatives and friends on the Mexican side. They have presents for their abuela, but Juan's drawing of Mary and Joseph won't fit through the fence. Poor Juan is devastated! A little ingenuity on Maria's part plus a helpful wind blowing toward Mexico save the day and the holiday.

Colorful illustrations capture perfectly a hopeful story by East Bay author and Stanford alumna Perkins. "Between Us and Abuela" is both timely and classic.

"Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong'o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; $18; ages 4-8.

Difficult as it may be to believe, Academy Award-winning actress and celebrated beauty Lupita Nyong'o was teased as a child for her appearance, specifically the color of her skin. That long-ago hurt was the inspiration for this book about a dark-skinned little girl. Sulwe doesn't even resemble the other members of her family. At school she's called "Blackie" and "Darky," and has trouble making friends. She reacts by trying to lighten her skin. Sulwe's mother can't convince her to see her own beauty, but a nighttime story about sisters Night and Day shows her that people like her are needed "just the way you are."

Brightness is in everyone in this luminous picture book that serves as a gentle introduction to the concept of shadeism and its harmful effects, even on the very young.

"The End of Something Wonderful: A practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral" by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, illustrated by George Ermos; Sterling Children's Books; $17; ages 4-8.

"First you need something dead ..." is how this clever book by Menlo Park author Lucianovic begins. That something could be a pet or perhaps a pill bug. It will need a box, a hole (or toilet), appropriate songs and flowers. The backyard funeral organizer will probably want tissues and a way to continue to mourn the loss. "Maybe you want to curl up close to where you buried your Something Dead and have chats every so often." That's okay and encouraged.

"The End of Something Wonderful" acknowledges and validates the emotions children often feel when a pet dies. It offers a roadmap to process that grief in a kind and compassionate manner, with a generous helping of humor and inviting illustrations featuring a multicultural cast of characters (and dead somethings).

"Todos Iguales / All Equal: Un Corrido de / A Ballad of Lemon Grove" written and illustrated by Christy Hale; Children's Book Press/Lee & Low; $20; ages 6-12.

This rich, gorgeously illustrated bilingual picture book tells in text and song the story of the first successful school desegregation case in the United States. In 1931, 12-year-old Roberto Alvarez was among 75 Mexican American students in Lemon Grove, California, who refused to attend the barn-like school hastily constructed for them. While the children — most of whom were United States citizens— boycotted the school, parents sued the school board. Roberto was chosen to represent the students, and they won! The judge ruled that "... to separate all the Mexicans in one group can only be done by infringing the laws of the State of California."

A thorough appendix delves into the history of school desegregation in the U.S., describes the participants in this case, and explains corridos, which are songs or ballads that tell a story. This is an important equal-rights case that all California families should know about. Here, too, are sun-splashed illustrations inspired by labels on vintage citrus crates, created by an award-winning Palo Alto author and illustrator.

"Guts" by Raina Telgemeier; Scholastic/Graphix; $13; ages 8-12.

America's favorite graphic novelist for kids is back with another unputdownable memoir, this time about her chronic stomachaches and panic-inducing anxiety, especially about food. Raina misses a lot of school in fourth and fifth grades. Her relationships with friends suffer when she's afraid she's going to throw up. She also has trouble dealing with being teased. So her mom, the good San Francisco parent that she is, takes her to a therapist. Raina learns in therapy how to cope with her fears by breathing deeply. She then teaches the technique to her classmates. "And everyone seemed a little calmer afterward." (Except, perhaps, her nemesis.)

Telgemeier relates this honest, compelling story with her trademark humor. She gives a face to anxiety and therapy that will help thousands of young readers whether or not they're dealing with anxiety.

"Torpedoed: The true story of the World War II sinking of 'The Children's Ship'" by Deborah Heiligman; Henry Holt/Godwin; $20; ages 8-12.

Most kids have heard of the Titanic. But are they familiar with the SS City of Binares? It also met a tragic ending in the North Atlantic — while carrying, among others, 100 children being evacuated from Great Britain to Canada at the beginning of World War II. Passengers and crewmen drowned in frigid waters after a German U-boat torpedoed the Binares. Not everyone perished, however. Nonfiction master Heiligman interviewed survivors and dove into the history. She used that research, documented in an extensive bibliography, to tell a dramatic and detailed story of heroism and courage in the midst of death.

British parents had decided to send their children away after Germany began nightly bombing raids on cities. Young evacuees between 5 and 15, each in a group led by an adult escort, were enrolled in a government program. For the first several days, the journey was a dream: Kids ran and played on the elegant cruise ship and had access to all the food they wanted, especially ice cream. Fast friendships formed early. Four days after setting sail, at 10:03 p.m., the dream became a nightmare.

"Torpedoed" tells riveting individual stories of children and adults as they escape during an icy storm onto life boats and rafts before the ship sinks. Beth Cummings and Bess Walder cling to an overturned lifeboat as it crashes on waves. Music teacher Mary Cornish keeps boys awake and alive by telling stories for eight days on Lifeboat 12. Gussie Grimmond had sent letters home to her parents about life on the ship; she and her four siblings died. Sonia Bech was traveling with her mother, sister and brother; they were separated during the evacuation, but all survived. Heiligman was able to interview Sonia. She is still alive.

There is a lot of sad in "Torpedoed," a book that reads like a good movie, but kids can handle that. Once they start reading this gem, they'll want to know — need to know — what happens next.

Debbie Duncan is a Stanford writer and author of books for children and adults.

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