The plain-spoken honesty of childhood

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A NEWBERY Medalist, a New Zealand mayor, an experienced children's writer, and a first-time novelist might not appear to have much in common at first glance. But in their recently published books, these four authors share a strikingly similar narrative voice - the plain-spoken honesty of childhood.

Cynthia Voight introduced feisty Dicey Tillerman, her younger brothers, sister, and grandmother in her first novel, ``Homecoming'' (Atheneum, 1981), which was nominated for an American Book Award.

She continued the compelling story of a family of kids in search of love and a home in ``Dicey's Song'' (Atheneum, 1982), and won the Newbery. A follow-up book, ``A Solitary Blue'' (Atheneum, 1983), was a Newbery Honor Book.

Recommended: Default

The Tillermans touched readers' hearts and raised judges' expectations, and Voight has continued to look in on various members of the family in succeeding novels. In her latest, ``Sons From Afar'' (Atheneum, New York, $13.95, 224 pp., ages 11 and up), they once again take center stage.

Dicey is away at college, so the focus in this book shifts to her two younger brothers, athletic Sammy and introspective James, as they join forces to look for the father they never knew. A decades-old trail leads them to their father's third-grade teacher and high school principal, and they also come to blows with some rough characters on the Baltimore docks.

Voight gives her readers enough action to keep them entertained, but the staying power of her story lies in its thoughtful pace and sense of place. Maryland's Eastern Shore is a world of its own, where kids learn to set crab traps and handle a lacrosse stick almost before they master two-wheelers. Voight draws deep drafts of detail from her own Chesapeake island living. As a high school English teacher, she's adept at re-creating classroom histrionics and knowing how to slip in teen perspectives on loyalty and cheating.

On a more fundamental level, ``Sons From Afar'' has to do with brotherly love, the kind that comes from a maturing sense of each youngster's self-worth. In their search for their father, Sammy and James find themselves, and ultimately discover each other.

``He was just so cool-headed, and smart, and - he saved my skin,'' Sammy tells his buddies of James's help in their dockside brawl. James, in turn, sees Sammy in a new light: ``He wanted to wrap his other arm around his brother - he was so grateful to him - and proud of him.''

An equally moving story of the ties that bind a brother and his half sister is told in ``The Hideaway'' (Atheneum, New York, $12.95, 128 pp., ages 10 to 14), by Barbara Corcoran, an author with more than 50 children's books to her credit.

Young Tom runs away from a reform school where he'd been sentenced for a crime he didn't commit, and heads home to find the rat of a friend who'd let him take the blame. While he holes up in a closed summer theater, his sister Shelley keeps him supplied with sandwiches and milk. A salty old-timer drops occasional bits of advice that lead Tom to two emotional confrontations.

It's a subtle tale that packs a moral punch without being preachy. Tom has to face up to some difficult decisions before he learns what constitutes true friendship.

But his inner wranglings are played out against a realistic background of teen-age uncertainties and loyalties - and adventure. As Shelley races off in search of extra flashlight batteries for a nighttime meeting, she ``was worried, but at the same time she felt a little like Joan of Arc.''

A writer new to children's books, Johnniece Marshall Wilson, has written a likable story of two brothers in ``Oh, Brother'' (Scholastic, New York, $10.95, 121 pp., ages 9 to 12).

Young Alex has a tough time putting up with his older brother, Andrew, who's forever taking his bike without asking and borrowing money from his secret hiding place. To make matters worse, the boys share a room, and Andrew's half is always a mess. Things come to a head one day when Alex's bike is stolen, and Andrew has to make good on his promise to help him buy another one.

Although the narrative is choppy in some spots and the black idiom seems too intrusive in others, the boys' squabbles and disappointments - as well as their eventual peacemaking - ring true. It's a book that just might attract readers who normally spend more time on the baseball lot than in their local library.

``Paradise Lane'' (Scholastic, New York, $12.95, 165 pp., ages 12 and up) is the first book by author William Taylor to be published in the United States. A former teacher and principal, Taylor is now mayor of the small New Zealand town of Ohakune. He writes of a specific locale - a wasteland crisscrossed by macrocarpa trees and home to joeys - but his coming-of-age romance should appeal to readers from many backgrounds.

The heroine is 15-year-old Rosie Perkins, the only daughter of an alcoholic mother and troubled father. Rosie has always been a loner, shunned by classmates who can't keep up with her inquiring intellect. She has her soft spots, though, and her decision to raise an abandoned baby possum is the start of an unexpected relationship with a neighborhood boy, who traps and skins the animals for extra cash.

Although she corrects Michael's speech and accuses him of trying to ``look and sound as thick as a fence post,'' Rosie is nevertheless drawn to him, and a sweet romance eventually blossoms. The author gives us two believable teen-agers, whose rough edges are smoothed by the growing care they show for each other, and their respective families.

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