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New Books for Your Kids’ Summer Reading List: Jewish-Themed Fantasy Stories

New titles, for three different age groups, offer young readers an escape into fantastical fiction—with a Jewish twist

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Gregor Samsa, in a detail of illustration from My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, & Giant Bugs, written by Matthue Roth and illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. (Courtesy of One Peace Books)
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Each year before Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rodger Kamenetz joined them and brought along a friend: Franz Kafka.

So nu, did your kids love The Path of Names, the new middle-grade fantasy novel about mystical goings-on at a Jewish summer camp (and the subject of a Tablet podcast with my darling daughter)? Well, yay, because here are three more new Jewish-themed fantasy books for summer reading, for three different age groups.

The Watcher in the Shadows (written by Chris Moriarty with illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer) is a steampunk-inflected alternate-history novel set in a magic-drenched, dybbuk-haunted, early-20th-century Lower East Side. Thirteen-year-old Sacha Kessler lives in a tenement; his friend Lily Astral (whose father is the famous robber baron John Jacob Astral) lives on Fifth Avenue. Both of them are apprentices to Maximillian Wolf, the notoriously stern and upright Inquisitor who polices the use of illegal magic in New York City. Wolf is investigating the death of the Klezmer King, a musician whose “world-famous electric tuxedo” has exploded mid-concert, leaving the King in a dead heap, “flashing and twinkling like a flurry of falling stars.” Who killed him and why? And why are the notorious Jewish gangsters who meet in the back of the Essex Street Candy Shop disappearing one by one? And will Sacha’s sister Bekah and her boyfriend Moishe succeed in leading a strike at the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory, or will the hopes of the workers be crushed under the boot of the evil magical industrialist J.P. Morgaunt?

The book’s convoluted plot—filled with references to Wiccanist revolutionaries, Jewish mystics, and Galitzian numbers-runners—is pretty complex for 9- to 13-year-olds, though adults will get a kick out of all the historical winks. (The Wobblies are members of “Industrial Witches of the World”; there’s a McCarthy-ite organization called ACCUSE: The Advisory Committee to Congress on Un-American Sorcery; a “scabbalist” is a strike-breaker who uses the Kabbalah to work with inhuman speed.) Complicating things further is the fact that this is a sequel to The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, the 2011 novel that introduced most of these characters. (In that one, Sacha, Lily, and Wolf tried to prevent the assassination of Thomas Edison.) Unless you’ve read the first book, the introductions of all these characters seem awfully abrupt. The mix of funny and scary may be too jarring for some readers. And we don’t see enough magic! It’s a basic show-don’t-tell problem; the word “magic” appears a zillion times, but actual scenes of otherworldly action are too few and far between.

When they do appear, though, they’re wonderful. Take this description of the discovery of the sweatshop scabbalist, at work alone in a hidden room: “Hundreds of shirts hung in midair, squeezed into the workshop shoulder to shoulder, like rush-hour subway passengers. Bolts of cloth shuttled back and forth overhead. Bobbins scuttled around like nimble white spiders.” Nifty.

If that’s too creepy for your kid, though, you definitely don’t want to get her My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents & Giant Bugs, by Matthue Roth, with illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason. If, however, your kid is a wee goth in training, go nuts. Roth, the co-creator of G-dcast and author of the young-adult novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, retells three Kafka stories: “Excursion Into the Mountains”; “The Metamorphosis”; and “Josefine the Singer, or, The Mouse People.” While the tales aren’t explicitly Jewish, Kafka’s vibe sure is: pleasurably absurd, with hints of existential dread, loss, and menace. Roth turns each one into poetry (I actually prefer his edited-down version of “Josefine” to the grown-up version—sacrilege!), and Eason’s intricate pen-and-ink illustrations complement the stories beautifully. His ink-scratchy, ominous mountains and shadowy rooms are Gorey-esque, while his gorgeously ornate, sinuous patterns on Gregor the giant bug bring to mind Aubrey Beardsley. Even the typeface is pretty and spooky. I’m not quite sure who the audience for a poetic picture-book version of Kafka is—but hipster adults and wee Wednesday Addamses will love it.

And finally, we have Proxy by Alex London, a dystopian young-adult sci-fi novel set in a post-apocalyptic future. I could not put this one down. It is nonstop, propulsive action in a smart, smart, smart package. The world-building (look at me, I know genre lingo) is spectacular: Main characters Syd and Knox live in a class-riven future in which you’re either a debtor or a creditor, and never the twain shall meet. (Until, in this book, they do.) Targeted advertising literally follows you wherever you go, flashing on the walls around you … unless you’re rich, in which case you can buy privacy. The wealthy can also snap up fabulous modified genes and cancer-curing patches and fuzzy pink and blue robot nannies called Carebots to raise their children, while the poor are mired in lousy schools, ill health, and reliance on a black-market economy.

Sydney Carton (all orphans are named after literary characters), who goes by Syd, is a swampcat, a refugee from the pestilent marshes and radioactive cities of the east. He’s dark-haired and dark-skinned, and his mentor Mr. Baram (who calls him “bubeleh” and “my mishpucha”) insists that both he and Syd have roots in the Holy Land. Syd is also a Proxy, a scapegoat for all the sins committed by his Patron, a bratty rich kid named Knox. In the social system of the future, every wealthy person has a corresponding poor person to absorb all his or her punishments. (The book is a futuristic version of Sid Fleischman’s Newbery Award-winning classic The Whipping Boy.) Syd is also gay—or in the slur of his time, “Chapter 11”: “A bankrupt 1 and 1, a binary insult. Two of the same thing pressed together.”

While Syd has never even kissed anyone, Knox is a total (hetero) playboy. When we first meet him, he’s just stolen a car and is joyriding with a girl whose name he can’t even remember, swiping through the datastream while driving to pull up “a holo of a long-faced puppy its tail wagging and its little pink tongue hanging out,” which he sends to the passenger seat to lick the girl in 3-D. “She laughed. It was an old stock pic; he’d used it a thousand times before, but it never failed him.”

I have to start hedging here; the less I tell you about the plot, the better. Let’s just say that the Torah concept of jubilee is an integral part of the story, and the book wrestles with very Jewish questions about sacrifice and social action. But what I love about Proxy is that while the setting is wildly clever and fully realized, the characters aren’t given short shrift. You root for Syd to escape his circumstances and for Knox to man up. This is the rare young-adult novel that should appeal to both boys and girls and to fans of all genres; I’m generally a sci-fi loather, and I loved it. The ending is a total cliffhanger; I am plotzing for the sequel.

The upshot: Whatever your kid’s age, interests, or literary predilections, he or she has no excuse to whine about being boooooooored now that summer’s half over. Ominous summer reading for all! Bring a little dark to the light!

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New Books for Your Kids’ Summer Reading List: Jewish-Themed Fantasy Stories

New titles, for three different age groups, offer young readers an escape into fantastical fiction—with a Jewish twist

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