Hot kids books for the dog days of summer

Kids, just like adults, deserve plenty of choices for summer and spare-time reading. All these titles have the kind of gentle humor, endearing characters and engaging storylines that make them perfect as vacation reads, but several deal with serious issues, too. Pack a few of these in your kids’ travel bags as a satisfying way to wrap up the summer — or they can enjoy them before school starts.     

Picture books

Besides being the daughter of Scottish pop music legend Donovan and an indie movie star in her own right, Ione Skye is also the author of a children’s book. As Skye writes in her author’s note to “My Yiddish Vacation,” her first book, “My brother and I grew up in Hollywood in the 1970s, raised by our hippie mom.” The children’s vacations with their Jewish grandparents taught them a smattering of Yiddish, and Skye recreates their adventures learning the language in this rollicking picture book through her characters Ruth and Sammy.

Scott Menchin’s cartoon illustrations give readers a child’s-eye view on the adult conversations that demonstrate the use of each Yiddish term. Grandma jokes that she likes her shmaltz because it helps her float better in the pool. Grandpa warns Sammy to stay away from the nudniks at the local 7-Eleven. Ruth goes out to lunch with Grandma and her friends, known to their menfolk as yentas.

“What’s nachas, Grandma?” the children ask. Grandma’s answer, “Joy,” might as well describe the warm feeling families will get when they share a trip through their linguistic heritage through the gentle humor in Skye’s book.

Jim Aylesworth is the author of dozens of rhyming books. In “My Grandfather’s Coat” he retells the story in the classic Yiddish folk song “Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl” (“I Had a Little Overcoat”).

The theme of “something from nothing” has inspired several previous picture book treatments, but Aylesworth and illustrator Barbara McClintock make this one their own. Aylesworth’s lively text tells the classic Jewish American immigrant story of a young man (the grandfather of the tale) who comes to America with nothing, falls in love, marries, and establishes a career and a family — all the while remaking his elegant wedding coat into first a jacket, then a vest, a tie and finally a toy for his great-grandchild, to whom the story is told. But wait — there’s one more surprise use of the last little piece of cloth, before it wears away leaving nothing except … the story.

McClintock drew inspiration for her warm, pen-and-watercolor pictures from the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, Connecticut.

Jennifer Rosner’s “The Mitten String” was a recent selection of the PJ Library. Kristina Swarner’s jewel-toned art helps recreate the family life of a young Jewish girl whose love for bright colors takes shape in the mittens she knits. Ruthie and her family befriend Bayla, a deaf woman whom Rosner modeled on her own great-great-aunt, a deaf woman who lived in an Austrian village in the 1800s.

Bayla and her baby son, Aaron, take shelter with Ruthie’s family, and Ruthie sees how the deaf Bayla uses the beautiful length of blue yarn she carries as a link between herself and Aaron while they sleep, so that she can wake to respond to him during the night. This gives Ruthie the idea to add strings to secure the mittens she knits for the children of the village to their coat sleeves. Ruthie’s gift to Bayla — mittens for mother and son connected by a length of yarn — prompts her own mother to call her “both clever and kind.”

“The Mitten String” is a gem that recreates the feel of a traditional European Jewish town through the rhythms of the gentle folklore-like tale and the tender relationships among the characters.

Chapter books

Oakland-based author Joanne Rocklin’s newest novel for upper-elementary school readers, “Fleabrain Loves Franny,” is set in 1952 Pittsburgh, and the central character is a girl recovering from polio. An unusual recipe for a page-turner, but Rocklin is a masterful storyteller whoweaves humor, friendship and timeless Jewish values against her serious background narrative.

Franny Katzenback comes home from the hospital and finds a note amid the clutter of books and get-well cards on her bed. “I offer you an invitation to connect,” writes Fleabrain, the urbane and articulate flea who lives at the tip of her dog’s tail. An homage to E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” yet a rich and absorbing story of its own, “Fleabrain Loves Franny” follows our heroine and her mite-sized hero on a series of adventures of the mind and spirit just when she needs them most.

Donna Gephart’s “Death by Toilet Paper” is filled with the kind of puns that induce groans in adults, but that kids love. Benjamin Epstein’s family is in financial trouble after the death of his dad from cancer. Seventh-grade Benjamin narrates his quest to win the Royal-T Bathroom Tissue slogan contest in order to save himself, his mother, and his Alzheimer’s-stricken zayde from eviction. He also has to cope with his still-painful grief for his father, as well as school bullying and a string of slapstick mishaps as he tries out one entrepreneurial scheme after another.

Benjamin’s wit and verbal dexterity help him make sense of stresses in his life that would make plenty of adults give up hope. Gephart adroitly melds comedy, drama, and enough gross humor to please even the most demanding reluctant young reader into a coming-of-age tale that demonstrates the resilience of one youthful and highly articulate spirit.

Una LaMarche’s “Like No Other” is a tender, contemporary Romeo and Juliet story for young adult readers. Deborah is a good Hassidic girl who has never questioned her sheltered world. When a hurricane traps her in an elevator with Jax, a shy, bookish West Indian teen who lives on the other side of her Crown Heights street, the two develop a relationship that brings richness and happiness to their lives, but given their backgrounds, where can it go? LaMarche injects this sweet and intense romance with humor, subtle social commentary, and a serious look at the meaning of identity and faith.

“My Yiddish Vacation”
by Ione Skye (Henry Holt and Co., 32 pages)

“My Grandfather’s Coat” by Jim Aylesworth (Scholastic Press, 32 pages)

“The Mitten String” by Jennifer Rosner (Random House Books for Young Readers, 32 pages)

“Fleabrain Loves Franny” by Joanne Rocklin (Harry N. Abrams, 288 pages)

“Death by Toilet Paper” by Donna Gephart (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 272 pages)

“Like No Other” by Una LaMarche (Razorbill, 368 pages)