Books often end up on a variety of holiday checklists either as travel companions, a special gift or the opportunity to share family time together during winter evenings in front of the fire, making this a good time of year for families to expand their home libraries. We've put together a list of books for children and families that cover everything from Ansel Adams' work to local ghost tales and family struggles set in the 1700s.
"Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature" by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, illustrated by Christy Hale; $18; Henry Holt; ages 5-9.
Ansel Adams "never walked—he ran." What he loved most was to be in nature, even when nature rocked San Francisco: a brick wall broke his nose in the 1906 earthquake. He often played on the beach at the Golden Gate. Finally liberated from traditional school at age 13, Ansel studied piano, languages and algebra at home. Outdoors, he explored widely. Teenage Ansel Adams continued to teach himself by visiting daily the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
At 14 Ansel went to Yosemite for the first time, where his parents gave him a camera. Photography became his focus and his passion. The world took note.
This biographical gem of one of the most famous Californians of the 20th century is gorgeously rendered by Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale, using colorful collage art that is as stunning as an Ansel Adams classic black and white photograph. Young readers will enjoy seeing what Golden Gate beach looked like without the bridge, and understand and appreciate the photographer's love for Yosemite. Many will identify with Ansel's inability to pay attention as well as his joy in finding a passion in life. "Antsy Ansel" includes a two-page biography.
"Ghosts", by Raina Telgemeier; $11 paperback; Scholastic/Graphix; ages 8-12.
San Francisco author/illustrator Raina Telgemeier earned best-seller status as well as literary awards with her first three graphic novels, "Smile," "Drama," and "Sisters." Her new book, "Ghosts," is a masterpiece of storytelling and art. Bonus for local kids: it's set in a foggy Northern California coastal town Telgemeier has said is based on Half Moon Bay. Field trip!
Middle-schooler Cat's family moved to Bahia de la Luna because her little sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis. The cool air is good for her lungs. Cat wants Maya to be well, but she also misses her friends and warm Southern California. When Cat and Maya explore the town, they find something they didn't expect: ghosts. Maya, who is good-natured about her illness and her limitations, is curious about death. Cat, on the other hand, is afraid of Maya dying. She needs her sister, with the help of townspeople and friendly spirits, to teach her how to be brave.
Whether Cat's problem is moving to a new town, worrying about her dead grandmother or her sister's chronic illness, or dealing with a cute boy and his friends the ghosts, she learns that the best thing to do is "Just go with it." Not a bad philosophy!
"Ashes", by Laurie Halse Anderson; $23; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 10-14.
It's the summer of 1781, five years into the War of Independence. Seventeen-year-old escaped slave Isabel is determined to find her younger sister, Ruth, who'd been stolen in 1776 in New York City and, Isabel is certain, is being held in South Carolina. What Isabel doesn't count on is Ruth's rejection.
This is only one of the battles Isabel wages in this brilliant conclusion to Laurie Halse Anderson's "Seeds of America" trilogy that began with a National Book Award nominee, "Chains." Curzon, the main character in "Forge," the second book, is a black soldier in the Rhode Island regiment who helps Isabel find Ruth. The young people manage to walk to Virginia, where Curzon re-enlists with the Patriots and Isabel and Ruth work for a wretched laundress. Isabel lives in constant fear of being captured and ending up on the auction block. She gets them out of town just in time, and finds the camp where the Continental army is preparing for the battle of Yorktown. There she and Ruth help take care of the troops, including Curzon, before, during and after the famous Revolutionary War battle.
"Ashes" is a survival story, a war book, and an important historical novel. Young fans of the hit Broadway musical "Hamilton" will be especially drawn to it. Importantly, "Ashes" illustrates the hypocrisy of the Patriots, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for securing freedom for white colonists while continuing to hold black people as slaves.
Laurie Halse Anderson's books are copiously researched and terrifically told. "Ashes" was well worth the wait. Huzzah!
"Hundred Percent", by Karen Romano Young; $17; Chronicle; ages 9-14.
Tween readers fortunate to get their hands on this novel will, I suspect, come away feeling wonderfully reassured: "I'm not the only one who finds sixth grade confusing!" It is such a "middle" year, whether it's the last in elementary school or the beginning of middle school. In Tink's case, she's in a Connecticut elementary school. Though still going by the childhood nickname of Peter Pan's fairy, Tink is now the tall girl in the back row of the class picture who matured faster than most of her classmates, especially her cute best friend. But BF, Jackie, is the one invited to the boy-girl party. Jackie gets whistles, Tink hears "Woof!" Ouch. Also: real-life sixth grade.
Jackie thinks Tink deserves a more grown-up name and suggests Chris, since Tink's real name is Christine. It doesn't stick. Few things stay the same as the school year progresses. The popular kids sometimes invite Tink to join their circle (because of Jackie), but it's always temporary. Crushes come and go, failing for the right reasons. Again: real life. Tink gets barked at (by a previous crush, who liked her for the wrong reason) and Jackie is slut-shamed. That also happens in sixth grade. It's not always easy to stay best friends. Tink and Jackie struggle—they argue, hang up on each other, and are critical of the other girl's choices. But they sit next to each other on the bus and continue to talk on the telephone. That's what friends do.
Tink may stumble and fall and do stupid things, but it's all part of growing into her true Christine self by the end of the school year and this special book.
Family quick picks
AGES 5 AND UNDER
* "Thunder Boy Jr.,"written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (ages 2-5); $18:
Thunder Boy loves his dad, but he wants his own name. Can he and his family come up with the perfect one?
AGES 8 AND UNDER
* "The Night Gardener" by the Fan brothers, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (ages 4-8); $18.
A boy learns how to sculpt exquisite topiaries by working with the night gardener, and the neighborhood is transformed.
* "I Used to Be a Fish" by Tom Sullivan, Balzer and Bray (ages 4-8); $18.
Brilliant depiction of the science of evolution.
* "Nanette's Baguette" by Mo Willems, Disney-Hyperion (ages 4-8); $18.
Nanette won't forget her first trip to get a baguette.
* "I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark" by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (ages 4-8); $18.
The oldest justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has been fighting for equality her entire life.
AGES 8 AND OVER
* "The Kindness Club: Chloe on the Bright Side" by Courtney Sheinmel; $16; Bloomsbury (ages 8-12).
Now more than ever, kids need to read about kindness. First in a series.
* "Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White"
by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ages 8-14); $19.
* Biographical journey of a great writer told in letters, manuscripts, collages, stories and photographs.
Debbie Duncan is a Stanford writer and author of books for children and adults.