Suffer the Little Children

March 25, 1995|By HAL PIPER

"Thirteen-year-old Salamanca's mother leaves home suddenly on a spiritual quest, vowing to return, but can't keep her promise. . . . Sal meets Phoebe Winterbottom, also 13, . . . whose mother has also left home.

The book is ''Walk Two Moons,'' by Sharon Creech. It sounds like loads of fun: The review in School Library Journal praises its ''humor and suspense,'' if you're in the mood for humor about a mother's death. At least there is a happy ending: ''Phoebe's mother does return home, bringing with her a son previously unknown to her family, who is accepted with alacrity.''

This is the new realism in children's books. No more happy families. No more mischievous romps with the freckle-faced kid next door and a dog named Rags.

Twenty years ago Judy Blume wrote about adolescent girls who had -- gulp! -- menstrual periods, sexual feelings and doubts about God. Some scandalized parents pressured schools to take the books off library shelves. Today's parents only hope their youngsters are reading nothing more depressing than Judy Blume.

They might be into ''Homecoming'' or ''Solitary Blue,'' both by Cynthia Voight, both about mothers who abandon their children. Or ''On My Honor, by Marion Bauer, in which a 12-year-old boy has to cope with the death of his best friend -- and his own partial responsibility for it.

These are good books; my children read them in middle school. And they are professionally acclaimed. Ms. Voight recently won the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. 'Walk Two Moons'' won the Newbery Award as the year's ''most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.'' The Caldecott Medal for the best picture book went to ''Smoky Night,'' illustrated by David Diaz. It is ''about a night of urban rioting from a child's perspective.''

Giving awards for books about hellish childhood nightmares instead of blissful childhood idylls is an ironic trend. John Newbery (1713-1767) did his work in reaction to the prevailing literary fare of his time, which ran to religious moralizing and scarifying warnings about what happens to bad children. No books then were tailored to children and their interests. Newbery changed that by publishing ''Mother Goose'' and other books just for children.

Now the award given in his name honors books about adult fears and concerns. Sophisticated New York editors and jaded librarians bored with ''Doctor Doolittle,'' ''Rabbit Hill'' and ''Johnny Tremain'' (past Newbery laureates) look for something a little more cutting-edge.

But children don't live on the cutting edge. They need stories to help them become readers and to broaden their interests. As Judy Blume knew, children don't have perfect lives, any more than adults do, and they are interested in how children like them deal with their problems. But a steady diet of books about children forced to leave childhood and take on adult roles is no healthier to read about than to experience. A surfeit of anguish is no better than a surfeit of sunshine.

School Library Journal reviewed four other books along with ''Walk Two Moons.'' Here are excerpts from those notices:

'' . . . An abused teen-ager fights a heroic battle to deal with his mother's death and to survive the mistreatment of one of the most vicious stepmothers in all of literature. . . . He runs away, . . . nearly dies and is joined by Susan from Spanish class who has run away, pregnant, from her own destructive home. . . .'' (''Three NBs of Julian Drew,'' by James M. Deem)

''Thad, a seventh-grader, is paralyzed in a fall from some bleachers during a game of monkey tag with his twin brother, Eli. Eli feels guilt for his part in the near-fatal accident. . . .'' (''Monkey Tag,'' by Pete Fromm)

''Selda's [Turkish] family has been split up for years. . . . She is overjoyed when they are finally reunited near Zurich. Her excitement quickly fades, though, as she faces prejudice. . . . Two friends help her cope -- classmate Giselle, a member of a wealthy but dysfunctional Swiss family, and Ferhat, an illegal Turkish immigrant. . . . '' (''The Frozen Waterfall,'' by Gaye Hicyilmaz)

''An orphan is accosted in a graveyard by an escaped convict who threatens to cut out his heart and liver. . . . The orphan is adopted by a felon who teaches him to pick pockets and forces him to steal. . . .''

OK, that last one is a conflation of seamy doings from Charles Dickens (in ''Great Expectations'' and ''Oliver Twist''). But if I write it up, disguising the plot borrowings, betcha I win next year's Newbery.

D8 Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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