SINCE 1906 - with the publication of Rudyard Kipling's ``Puck of Pook's Hill'' and ``The Story of the Amulet,'' by E. Nesbit - time fantasies have intrigued and delighted children. Time is, after all, one thing children are rich in. Yet to understand it you need the perspective of, well ... time. In fantasy novels children can travel through decades, centuries, even millennia, to experience how present, past, and future interact. Three new time fantasies published this spring show how varied and rich this genre can be.
In A Handful of Time (Viking Kestrel, New York, 186 pp., $11.95, ages 8 to 12), Canadian author Kit Pearson uses a limited time frame, 35 years, to explore the relationship between generations within one family.
While her parents settle their divorce, 12-year-old Patricia is sent to British Columbia to spend the summer with relatives at the family's lakeside cabin. Patricia has been raised apart from this boisterous crew of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Feeling like a stranger among them, and depressed over the divorce, she discovers a lost family heirloom that allows her to escape into the past. There, invisible and ghostlike, Patricia observes her mother, Ruth, at age 12, engaged in a struggle for recognition and love during another difficult summer at the lake.
Pearson has done an excellent job of showing how conflict can shape personality and how choices made in childhood can bring about both good and bad for generations to come. The time-split view of Patricia's relations as they were in the 1950s and are in the 1980s creates a rich, sometimes humorous, often poignant perspective on family life.
A much more ambitious leap in time is made in The Reluctant God, by Pamela Service (Atheneum, New York, 211 pp., $13.95, ages 9 to 13).
For the first half of the book, the hero and heroine are separated by nearly 4,000 years. Introverted Lorna, the daughter of an archaeologist, would much rather sort potsherds at her father's digs in Egypt than be imprisoned in boarding school back in England.
Ameni, too, is confined. Twin brother of the crown prince of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, he is bound by duty and ceremony. Yet he yearns for adventure.
Ameni's dreams of freedom appear to be shattered when he is entombed as a ``living god'' to watch over sacred offerings of his people. But when Lorna stumbles on his tomb, he is released into her time. In a transcontinental adventure the two recover the missing offerings.
Of this book, the author says, ``By age eight I decided that someone really ought to write a story where the mummy was the good guy.'' Ameni is no low-budget movie monster, but a fully developed personality from the past. His observations of the present add depth to a thumping good adventure story.
Like Lorna, readers will never see history in quite the same way after touring the British Museum with a revivified teen-age pharaoh looking for his roots.
In the novel's dramatic climax Ameni teeters on the brink of eternity. The boy-god-pharaoh must choose between duty and love, immortality and the vibrant present. His choice will satisfy readers on all counts.
Jill Paton Walsh is known for the sensitivity, intelligence, and craftsmanship of her novels. In her latest book, Torch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 176 pp., $12.95, ages 9 to 13), she takes young readers into the distant future to explore timeless themes.
When the Guardian entrusts the last Torch to Dio, the boy and his friends leave their isolated Greek village, Olim. Searching for a place to deliver the Torch, the children travel through a world of primitive city-states, the remnants of our own collapsed civilization.
The meaning of the Olympic torch has been lost, as has the written word. To the children, our time - the Ago - is the time of myth, of ``mechos and singing boxes and flying cars.'' Ancient Greece and Rome have slipped beyond memory.
Skillfully, Walsh weaves elements of our own and past cultures into the ageless patterns of mythology to explore themes of freedom and faith. This odyssey is a fresh and personal narrative that will engage readers through the very humanness of its young heroes.
Carolyn Polese's latest book for children, ``Promise Not to Tell,'' received a 1986 Christopher Award.