Schools out -- let's read!

Fresh crop of summer books for kids star otters, soccer, magic and more

Otters and hamsters, sleeping and bathing. Soccer and magic, Broadway and shenanigans. All this and more in a fresh crop of summer books for kids.

"Sleepyheads" by Sandra J. Howatt, illustrated by Joyce Wan; $17; Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster; ages 2-6.

The best bedtime books hold their appeal through repeat readings. "Sleepyheads" does that with gentle rhymes, illustrations large and detailed enough for babies to follow and a simple storyline. Young fans of Monterey Bay Aquarium otters will recognize a certain water-resting sleepyhead.

"Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania" by Cynthia Lord, illustrated by Derek Anderson; $17; Scholastic; ages 2-6.

It's easy to fall in love with Hot Rod Hamster, an enthusiastic little guy on the lookout for fun at the fair: rides, food and the chance to save the day for Fearless Franco's monster truck show.

Artwork in Hot Rod Hamster's third book is as energetic as its star rodent. Rhymes and "Which would you choose?" queries throughout invite little ones to chime in, and add to the book's read-aloud charm.

"President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath" by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen; Candlewick Press; $17; ages 4-8.

William Howard Taft was so hefty that he had a custom-made bathtub in the White House. Award-winning Berkeley author Mac Barnett takes the story that President Taft once got stuck in his bathtub and runs with it. "Willy" has the first lady call in members of the president's cabinet, each of whom devises a solution appropriate to his position. (The vice president simply wants to be sworn in as president.) The text is humorous and early 20th century-sounding, with oversized illustrations that suit the subject perfectly.

"Soccer Star" by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Renato Alarcão; $17; Candlewick Press; ages 4-8.

With the World Cup in Brazil this summer and the Olympics there in 2016, why not look to a picture book to illuminate the popularity of soccer in Brazil? "Soccer Star" keeps things real by showing kids living in poverty who need to work, and how overcoming sexism in sports takes determination and, if possible, a supportive older brother. Score!

"A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie Lloyd; $17; Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Sixth-grader Felicity Pickle (love that name) sees words. She collects words such as splendiferous. Since her father left Felicity, her mother, little sister, and their dog have been wandering the country in their van, the Pickled Jalapeño (love that, too). Now they've come to Mama's hometown, Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, a town with a magical history. Felicity wants to use words to convince her rambling mama to stay put. She makes a best friend who specializes in anonymous good deeds. Felicity also meets many of the colorful townspeople, past and present, in order to understand the magic in the town's history and what she might do to turn it loose again.

"A Snicker of Magic" is a charming family read-aloud. I recommend keeping a cheat-sheet of the large cast of characters and their specialized snickers of magic. That, or multiple readings.

"Five, Six, Seven, Nate!" by Tim Federle; Simon & Schuster; $17; ages 10-14.

Nate, the indefatigable star of Peninsula native Tim Federle's award-winning "Better Nate Than Ever," is back, and in a Broadway production, the premiere of "E.T.: The Musical." It's a dream come true. Or is it, when the director keeps cutting klutzy Nate out of scenes and the child star of the show -- a rich kid with the worst stage mother -- seems to have it out for him? What good could watching all the rehearsals and running lines with E.T.'s understudy (while they get mani-pedis) possibly do for Nate?

Lots, as it turns out. This sweet sequel is full of onstage and backstage drama, laugh-out-loud scenes, crazy characters and a touching post-production kiss. Tim Federle's recording of the "Five, Six, Seven, Nate!" audiobook is not to be missed -- listen to it on that summer family roadtrip.

"The Great Greene Heist" by Varian Johnson; Scholastic; $17; ages 10-14.

Prankster and schemer Jackson Greene swears he's reformed: no more cons after the last one went horribly wrong, leaving him estranged from his basketball-playing love interest, Gaby de la Cruz. But when Gaby's opponent for middle school president vows to steal the election with assistance from the crooked principal and then cut funds to clubs, Jackson and his nerdy crew come up with a clever and evolving game plan that surprises even some who think they're in on the caper as it unfolds on election day.

There has been quite a bit written recently about the lack of diversity in books for young people. This novel, by contrast, features a charming African-American main character and his Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian friends. But kids shouldn't be encouraged to read "The Great Greene Heist" simply because it reflects a 21st century population. This book has humor, multiple plot twists, and a whole lot of heart.

Debbie Duncan is a Stanford writer who has been reviewing children's books for the Weekly since 1997.

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