Stealing home, saving the world

The season's most heavily promoted book for kids is a rough ball game

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Don't be surprised if you get lost looking for the children's section of your bookstore this fall. More and more "adult" authors – Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, and Carl Hiaasen, to name three – are cropping up next to Beatrix Potter and Judy Blume. Not since the days of E.B. White and James Thurber have so many literary heavyweights gone tromping into fairyland. (Let's hope the Yellow Brick Road doesn't crack under the weight of all the awards.)

Perhaps none is so anticipated as "Summerland," Michael Chabon's first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (2000) and his first book for young adults. Hyperion hopes to push the book into Harry Potter status with a $250,000 marketing campaign.

Chabon tries for an epic with an all-American swagger and a mythology as big as the Wild West. It's wildly inventive, but the core premise that baseball is a metaphor for life is ground as well-trodden as home plate.

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Eleven-year-old Ethan Feld, the worst player in the history of baseball, gets recruited to the hero leagues by a former Negro League ballplayer named Ringfinger Brown. Turns out, the rookie's been tapped for the "real" World Series – in which the existence of four parallel worlds depends on him winning the big game.

Along with teammate Jennifer T. Rideout, two native American fairies (ferishers), a pint-sized giant, and a Sasquatch named Taffy, Ethan journeys in his dad's beat-up Saab across the Summerlands to a nine-inning showdown with Coyote and his demon ball club. On their way to Diamond Green, they play pickup games with hungry giants and Paul Bunyan.

In this sprawling 500-page book, Chabon references everything from native American lore to "Beowulf." And, in a welcome change of pace from the major leagues, none of his roster is in it for the glory (or the paychecks). Ethan, for one, is trying to save his dad, an inventor of Zeppelins, whom Coyote kidnapped for his nefarious scheme – the ultimate "game over."

Ethan's mom (a vet whose motto was "People could learn a lot from llamas") has recently died. Several characters come from fractured families, and the struggle not to let all the love pour out of the cracks gives the novel its poignancy.

The publisher is promoting the book for "all ages," but that's patently ridiculous. "Winnie the Pooh" is for all ages. This epic isn't for anyone under 12. The violence ranges from robust to graphic – including decapitations, frost-giant feeding frenzies, and a particularly ooky lab experiment. The book also contains references to liquor, swearing, hand-rolled cigarettes, and parts of anatomy not typically found in children's literature.

"Summerland" is more of a solid double than a home run, but it's hard not to root for someone who's so willing to swing for the fences.

• Yvonne Zipp is editor of the Monitor's Arts & Leisure section.

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