Special novels for teen-agers. Some of year's best and brightest young-adult titles

`A BOOK for the special reader.'' This tag line is used in the respected children's review media - from The Horn Book to School Library Journal - to flag the best and brightest young-adult titles. Three new novels fit squarely into the ``special reader'' category.

Memory (McElderry Books/Atheneum, New York, $13.95, 240 pp., age 14 and up) is the latest work of two-time Carnegie Award winner Margaret Mahy, one of the strongest voices in children's literature today.

Set in the author's native New Zealand, it depicts in sensitive and sometimes chaotic detail the relationship that develops between a 19-year-old borderline rebel, Jonny Dart, and the elderly woman he befriends and eventually takes responsibility for.

Like most other Mahy novels, ``Memory'' straddles the literary fence between teen and adult fiction. The prose is as evocative and the characters as fully developed as in any title appearing on a publisher's adult list, but the theme and subject matter are probably better suited to a younger audience.

As it happens, there have been a number of young-adult novels this year that have dealt with the challenges of Alzheimer's disease and more than a few that have focused on intergenerational issues. This is the best, by far, on both counts.

Tree By Leaf (Atheneum, New York, $13.95, 192 pp., age 10 and up) has the kind of believable teen-age characters and intriguing scenery that have made Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voight such a hit with young readers.

The setting of her 13th novel is a remote Maine peninsula, circa 1920. The leading ``lady'' is Clothilde Speer, a 12-year-old who wishes she had a few less chores and responsibilities. The ``Great War'' has just ended, and Clothilde's father has returned from battle, horribly disfigured. As she tries to come to terms with her father's condition, Clothilde rebels against the perceived injustice of war and rails at a God-like figure, the ``Voice.''

It's not always easy to tell where Clothilde's imaginings begin and end, but Voight fans will stick with her story to its healing conclusion. They'll also enjoy the lovely touches that the author brings to the most mundane subjects.

Granny Was a Buffer Girl, by Berlie Doherty (Orchard Books/Watts, New York, $12.95, 131 pp., age 10 and up), won the 1986 Carnegie Award in Britain and ought to attract a particular readership in the United States. There's not a lot of action in this collection of family remembrances that span three generations of courting and marriage in industrial Sheffield. But the conversations ring true, and the anticipations of a first dance will be recognizable to American teens.

The novel centers on Jess, who's about to leave home for a year of university study in France. As her various grandparents gather for a final evening together, they regale each other with stories about the old days. If it sounds like so much saccharin, it isn't. Just laughing good times around the kitchen stove.

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