Chuckle up: the dazzling, offbeat delight of being adventurous

As librarians, publishers, and critics continue to track current trends in children's books, most of them would probably agree on one sobering conclusion: There's not a lot for kids to laugh at these days. ``There's a pervasive seriousness, especially in books for young adults,'' said Karen Jameyson, managing editor of Horn Book Magazine, in a recent symposium sponsored by the highly respected review journal. ``It's pretty heavy-going literature, with only a few genuine laughs here and there.''

All the more reason, then, to applaud those titles that break through the dismal clouds of teen-age self-examination and pre-teen doubts with the dazzling, offbeat delight of being young and adventurous - even a bit silly.

For example, if you're a 13-year-old seventh-grader looking for the kind of self-confidence that would help in running for class secretary, why not try a modeling course at Studio Charmante?

That's where the resourceful heroine of Anastasia's Chosen Career, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $12.95, 142 pp., ages 10 to 13), heads one winter afternoon, full of hope. What she finds, however, is a dilapidated downtown storefront that ``looks like Cockroach City.'' This is the seventh in Ms. Lowry's ``Anastasia'' series, and one of the author's brightest, most convincing yet.

Anastasia is no goody-goody, but a typical young teen who ``liked the idea of being flagrant, even though she wasn't exactly sure what the word meant.'' Lowry has a sure touch with witty dialogue and observed moments, and she understands that the best humor is usually understated.

When the students in the modeling class have their hair restyled in an ancient beauty shop two flights up from a Chinese restaurant, the author holds back on easy yucks. Instead, she lets her startled characters tell their own nervous tale.

Beetles, Lightly Toasted, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Atheneum, New York, $11.95, 134 pp., ages 8 to 12), is an equally entertaining title, both for its genuinely funny writing and for its appealing characters. It's also good to see boys' faces on a book cover for this age group for a change.

``Beetles'' offers a welcome change of place. Instead of middle-class, East Coast suburbia, the setting is farming country in Bucksville, Iowa, where the Memorial Day parade is the big event of the year and extended families gather regularly for Sunday dinners. Fifth-grader Andy wants to win a school essay contest so he can get his picture in the local paper: ``... he didn't want to just disappear in the corn and soybeans forever, like some folks seemed to do.'' The topic is conservation, and Andy comes up with some inventive recipes for beetles, earthworms, and mealworm grubs, much to his classmates' disgust.

In fact, food as comic imagery may have taken a dizzying leap forward in author Naylor's hands. At one memorable dinner, Andy ``imagined the okra rising up out of the dish like an octopus, slithering across the table, picking up [cousin] Jack with one long tentacle, and dragging him out the door.'' Great stuff for the not-too-squeamish.

The audience for Soup on Fire, by Robert Newton Peck (Delacorte, New York, $13.95, 116 pp., ages 9 to 12), may be limited - but devoted. This eighth addition to the ``Soup'' series is as wildly incredible as its predecessors - and depends heavily on slapstick, pranks, and labored puns for laughs, yet shouts a cheery welcome to lots of kids.

In their latest misadventure, Rob and Soup are preparing for the arrival in their community of Learning, Vermont, of two heavily advertised spectacles - the Hollywood Heartburn Talent Show, and Bishop Zion Zeal and his Golden Prophets of Eternal Glory.

In the meantime, Rob whiles away the time in geography class by dreaming about his heartthrob, Norma Jean Bissell, while his teacher discusses the ``chilly'' climate near ``Andy's Mountain,'' and someone's ``Aunt Arctica,'' who has a pet ``Admiral bird.'' Groan if you will, but librarians desperate for humorous books say they can always count on Peck to keep kids reading.

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