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Novels for teens. Facing up to real-world concerns

By Heather Vogel Frederick / June 6, 1986



Shadows on the Pond, by Alison Cragin Herzig. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 244 pp. $12.95. On the Edge, by Gillian Cross. New York: Holiday House. 170 pp. $10.95. The Moonlight Man, by Paula Fox. New York: Bradbury Press. 179 pp. $12.95. Terrorism. Alcoholism. Divorce. It's the summer of 1986, and these are topics of concern to many kids today -- kids who are being thrust into an adult world at an increasingly early age. In fact, a literature has sprung up specifically designed to help children negotiate the thorny patches of adulthood. As three recent novels demonstrate, juvenile realism can deal effectively with serious topics when it avoids a kind of adolescent voyeurism, and should especially appeal to kids facing problems at home, at school, on the streets.

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Shadows on the Pond, by Alison Cragin Herzig, exemplifies the best of juvenile realism. It's an absorbing story, the kind that, as a teen-ager, I would have curled up with happily for an afternoon -- the kind that, as an adult, I did curl up with happily for an afternoon. It takes place during summertime in Vermont, and eighth-grade Jill's parents are going through a strained period in their marriage. Jill is happy to be back with her mother at the family summer home and reunited with her best friend, Migan, but her happiness is dampened by the absence of her father, who has remained in New York City with Jill's ballerina sister, Kate. And what's worse, Jill and Migan find that their secret hideout, a beaver pond, has been discovered by a poacher named Jeep intent on turning beaver pelts into cash.

With the help of Jill's friend Ryan, the girls plot to save the beavers. Herzig relieves the suspense with funny dialogue and comic situations, achieving just the right balance between the underlying tension of Jill's anguish over her parents' separation and the unfolding events.

And who says there are no happy endings? Jill and Ryan discover a growing affection for each other, and Herzig captures the giddy feeling of innocent first love perfectly.

In Gillian Cross's On the Edge, terrorists disrupt a peaceful English summer. For 13-year-old Tug Shakespeare, a journalist's son, being kidnapped is only the beginning of a nightmare. Imprisoned in a rented cottage in Derbyshire, Tug undergoes psychological battering at the hands of a couple of mixed-up revolutionaries, members of an outfit called ``Free People'' who have vague plans to topple the bourgeois family structure.

Simultaneously, young Jinny Slattery, daughter of a back-to-nature gypsy-cum-goldsmith, rebels against the lean, chore-filled life her parents have chosen for themselves and, by extension, for her. It's her Dad's fault she can't lead a normal life, Jinny complains to her mother. Jinny's mother tells her to be patient. ``It's always the people you love who trap you like that, Jinny. If you didn't care about him, you'd just walk off and lead your own life. . . . You have to grow round them. Make space for how they are.''

He may be a taskmaster, but it's Jinny's father who has trained her to be the sharp-eyed, resourceful girl she is. Quick-witted Jinny notices something amiss at the cottage, unravels the mystery of Tug, and, along with the kidnapped boy, taps an inner well of self-reliance to bring this suspenseful story to a satisfying conclusion. Obviously, there is some violence in this novel, but it's integral to the topic, and Cross handles it with sensitivity.

The Moonlight Man will challenge young adult readers. It's not just the subject -- alcoholism and its effects on individuals and their families: All three books deal with serious adult topics. But Paula Fox's style is cooler, quieter than that of either Herzig or Cross, and for some readers it may come across as detached.

As the book opens, her main character, Catherine, has been waiting for her father at boarding school in Montreal since school let out for the summer three weeks ago. Her parents were divorced when she was a toddler, and her contact with her father over the years has been erratic. Understandably, Catherine has painted for herself a somewhat romantic picture of the man who is her father -- a man who in reality is a failed writer, a novelist whose early promise was drained away by a steadily growing dependence on the bottle.

Over the course of a summer holiday spent with him in Nova Scotia, Catherine comes face to face with his alcoholism. In the end, she trades in her glamorized image of her father for the sober truth of his weakness.

In the process, she learns a great deal about human nature, forgiveness, and her own untested resources. A well-written, timely book on a timely subject. --30--{et