Fluttering between childhood and adulthood

LORD OF THE FRIES By Tim Wynne-Jones DK Publishing 214 pp., $17.95 Ages 11-14

Good adolescent literature is something of a miracle. Tilt one way and it's too heavy, too ugly. Tilt the other way and it's too light, too cute. The best books for young adults need to make adults just a little uncomfortable.

The witty stories Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones creates hold just the right balance. His latest collection, "Lord of the Fries," flies through moments of delight, disappointment, and challenge that adults will remember and young teens will identify with.

The title story pits two nosy girls against a crabby short-order cook who refuses to reveal his real identity. When a magazine editor offers the girls "good money" for "the tragic tale of the Lord of the Fries," their imaginations go wild with the possibilities.

"He looked about as tough as a guy four foot nothing could possibly look," the narrator notes, but the girls won't be put off. A little investigative journalism eventually yields a perfect story for the readers of "People Like Us," along with a photo of their man water-skiing in a tuxedo.

There are moments of real silliness, but at its core, it's a profoundly relevant story about balancing the role of the press (and profit) against a respect for others' privacy. Wynne-Jones describes the girls' decision in a moment that's at once beautiful and inspiring.

Without being heavy-handed, there's a reliance on symbolism in these pieces that would make them excellent vehicles for teaching literary analysis. For instance, in "Ick," a remarkably deft story about sexual harassment, Wynne-Jones soaks his narrative with aquatic symbols.

Young Garnet is having trouble acclimating to the currents of his advanced standing in school. "Being in the bright class was a bit like being in an aquarium. There were always people coming in to take a look at the colorful creatures swimming around in there.... He scuttled like a crab out of the light."

To make matters worse, Garnet's girlfriend is receiving an unhealthy amount of attention from a flashy new teacher, "a leopard shark," named Mr. I.C. Bellemy. There's nothing explicit here, but Wynne-Jones depicts the insidious flattery and sexually charged advances that high school students should be alert to.

Inspired by the scourge of aquariums - a fish disease called ick - Garnet and his friends devise a plan that puts Mr. Bellemy in his place. Their creative solution may not be imitable, but their calm, principled response is a good model of how students can handle a problem that's all too common.

The emotional range of this collection is wonderfully wide. In a moving story called "The Bermuda Triangle," a young man jumps between the tops of pine trees, trying to scare himself into talking after the disappearance of his father.

With a completely different tone, "The Anne Rehearsals" is an unabashedly sweet story about a young woman's obsession with "Anne of Green Gables."

In 1995, Wynne-Jones won the Horn Book fiction award for "Some of the Kinder Planets." This is an author who can describe that subtle blend between the primary colors of childhood and adulthood with remarkable fidelity.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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