Authors' young heroines fit in perfectly with lives, problems of middle-schoolers


August 12, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Modern science will come up with an invisible, painless set of braces guaranteed to straighten teeth in two months before it finds a cure for middle school misery.

The condition strikes girls ages 11 to 13. Puberty hits, and tomboys are supposed to start primping. Prisses are supposed to start having boy-girl parties. Primping and parties are doomed from the start, however, because boys that age couldn't care less about girls.

For temporary relief, girls can click into a clique and mope around the mall together. Or they can escape into novels in which heroines their own age are tackling problems far greater than their own. Shunning "Sweet Valley High" suburbia, they can taste different cultures, touch history and maybe learn about their own strengths as they share in another girl's failures and triumphs.

* Buhlaire Sims, 12, asks "Who am I?" and fights to find answers in "Plain City" by Newbery Medalist Virginia Hamilton (Blue Sky Press, $13.95, 194 pages, ages 8-12). She doesn't fit in, with her light brown skin and straw-colored Rasta curls.

At school, kids taunt her, calling her Mellow Yellow. At home, her elderly aunts are intent on protecting her from her history. They have raised her in Plain City while her mother, singer Bluesy Sims, has traveled the country. They have raised her to believe her father was missing in action in Vietnam.

But Buhlaire, stubborn and fearless, learns that her father is alive. He has been watching her. In a gripping scene, she is hiking through a blizzard when the snow ceases and the sun comes out, blinding her in a whiteout. Her father rescues her and takes her to the underpass beneath the interstate he shares with several other homeless people.

Buhlaire is drawn to his warmth, repulsed by his stench. It's her daddy. But his mind races; his mood reverses from one moment to the next. She decides to run away with him, to protect him.

But when she has time to think, and to forgive the adults who have hidden her father's mental illness from her, she finds another way to help him. Ms. Hamilton weaves plenty of tension into the story, and her characters are believeable -- especially the smart, strong Buhlaire.

* Baltimore novelist Colby Rodowsky has created several wonderful protagonists who happen to be young women, such as Sydney Downie in "Sydney, Herself," Slug in "Julie's Daughter" and the title character in "Lucy Peale."

Her latest book is "Hannah in Between" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $15, 152 pages, ages 12 and up). Hannah, 12, lives in Baltimore. Her dad is a teacher and her mom is a photographer who resents that she has to work weddings to make money.

Her mom is also an alcoholic.

Hannah is ashamed and angry, and afraid that someone will find out her mother's secret. Hannah weighs herself down until she can bear the burden no longer, finally confronting her father when her mother drives off drunk one evening.

The feelings of denial and helplessness will ring true for any reader in Hannah's situation. Her mother's alcoholism is painted in black and white -- she makes a drunken fool of herself while photographing a wedding, and lands in a hospital after a drunk-driving accident. But Hannah's reactions, and her attempts to cope, are genuine and come in all shades of gray.

* A novel about the aftermath of a nuclear power plant accident could be as stark as the contaminated landscape. But "Phoenix Rising," by Karen Hesse (Henry Holt, $15.95, 208 pages, ages 11-13), is as vibrant and full of life as its 13-year-old heroine, Nyle.

Ms. Hesse, who grew up in Baltimore, now lives with her husband and two daughters in Williamsville, Vt., less than 20 miles from a nuclear power plant. Nyle lives with her grandmother on a Vermont sheep farm that has so far escaped the radioactive fallout from the accident at the nearby plant.

But hundreds of other families have been evacuated from contaminated homes. Nyle's grandmother takes in two strangers, Mrs. Trent and her son, Ezra. Mr. Trent was an official at the power plant who died soon after the accident. Ezra, 15, took a high dose of radiation.

Nyle is convinced that Ezra is dying. Against her wishes, Gran has put Ezra and his mother in the back room, the dying room. Nyle was 6 when her mother died there -- after Nyle's father

deserted the two of them -- and Nyle's grandfather had died in that room two years ago.

Because she is reluctant to lose someone else she cares for, Nyle doesn't want to allow Ezra into her life. But she can't help it. She is a good person, and Ezra is beguiling. She stirs in him the will to live, and he teaches her not to be afraid to reach out and love, even if it can't be forever.

Ms. Hesse lets Nyle captivate readers, and Nyle's interaction with the other characters sweeps the story along. Right before the ending, Ms. Hesse slips into a preachy tone about the hazards of nuclear plants. Fortunately, that's the only time she dTC doesn't let the power of her story carry the message all on its own.

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