A look at the National Book Awards nominees/ Young People

To the National Book Foundation, there's nothing little about young-adult books. Indeed, the YA judges are the only ones free to consider books in any genre. Their fellow judges for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry must stay within the boundaries.

Books for young people win recognition in other prestigious contests, of course, but those prizes, such as the Newbery and Caldecott, take place in the world of children's literature. The National Book Awards ceremony is a special night when YA writers stand shoulder to shoulder - as they should - with the most celebrated "adult" writers in America.

Most of this year's nominees are familiar with the honor: Jacqueline Woodson was a finalist last year with "Hush," Polly Horvath was a finalist in 1999 for "The Trolls," and Richard Peck the year before with "A Long Way From Chicago." Keeping it all in the family, Paul Fleischman's father, Sid, was a finalist in 1979 for "Humbug Mountain."

The National Book Foundation sponsors literacy and book-appreciation programs in city schools, urban libraries, native American reservations, and other underserved communities. They also conduct a summer writing camp for young authors.

About 1,000 writers, editors, and publishers will attend the awards ceremony in Times Square on Nov. 19.

- Ron Charles

BREAKOUT, by Paul Fleischman, Cricket Books, $15.95

Fleischman takes one of life's most annoying situations - a messy L.A. traffic jam - and uses it to spin a vibrant portrait of a young playwright who's stuck in the mother of all gridlocks. We read the dual musings of Del, as both a 17-year-old trying to flee her miserable life in foster care, and as a 25 year old chronicling a traffic jam in her new play. Del is forced to ponder the smog of her past and the stagnancy of her future as she idles on the freeway and encounters other drivers who share her angst. Meanwhile, her older self offers a more creative take on the situation. Fleishman's polished writing zips right through the pages and will engage young readers. ("You can feel a thousand plans melting like snowflakes in a thousand palms.... We might as well be plants!") "Breakout" is a 124-page joy ride. Ages 14 and up. By Stephanie Broadhurst

THE CANNING SEASON, by Polly Horvath, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16

Sent by a preoccupied mother to stay with her twin great-aunts, 13-year-old Ratchet - named for the tool - finds a home on the shores of Maine that is certainly odd. The eccentric old twins introduce her to suicide and swearing, alcohol and aging, family lore and local color. Horvath's subject matter - and the flip manner and blunt prose she uses to describe it - straddle a line between refreshing and perhaps a bit too precocious for young readers. But as the story picks up speed, after dragging at first, it paints an endearing picture of the peculiar relationship that blossoms between Ratchet, her aunts, and Harper, the young "firecracker" who turns up on their doorstep. The book seamlessly blends the familiar with the fantastical, and offers a take on family and home that feels both imaginative and familiar. Ages 11-14. (208 pp.) By Teresa Méndez

AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy, Houghton Mifflin, $17

Murphy's dramatic history book examines a yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793 during the muggiest, most unbearable summer ever recorded. A mysterious disease had people streaming to nearby communities in the hopes of escape. Homes, schools, and shops were boarded up, and even the president, George Washington, fled. But one group, the Free African Society, stayed back to maintain some semblance of order, nursing the sick and inspiring hope in the city. Murphy brings to life the determination and perseverance of a people whose future was uncertain. Includes illustrations, notes, and contemporary newspaper accounts. Ages 12 and up. (192 pp.) By Elizabeth Armstrong

THE RIVER BETWEEN US, by Richard Peck, Dial Books, $16.99

Enveloped by the Mississippi River, this story is a gem for young readers. Exotic Delphine Duval and silent Calinda step off a steamboat and into the lives of Tilly Pruitt and her struggling family. The town, sitting in the no-man's land between North and South during the Civil War, is politically and ideologically divided. Peck meticulously reproduces the language, clothing, and sentiment of a time when people kept a "death drawer" containing clothing for burial. Not just a history lesson, the story addresses the subtler racial complexities of this brutal war while keeping character relationships alive. Tilly's epiphanies earn their space on the page with small bombshells: "I didn't know grown people changed, or were changed. I thought being grown was safer than that." Note: graphic portrayal of war injuries. Ages 9-12 (176 pp.) By Tonya Miller

LOCOMOTION, by Jacqueline Woodson, G.P. Putnam's Sons, $15.99

Four years after a fire took Lonnie's parents, ash still falls out of his memory and "slide on/ down to my stomach and make itself some tears." He's 11 now, and his new teacher is helping him put his feelings down on paper. The rich "Locomotion" is his book of poems: about the hole his parents' death has left; about his foster mom who doesn't tell him to hush so much these days; about his friends at school, especially one mean kid with an angel voice who goes to the hospital and comes back changed. Over a year's worth of writing verses from haiku to epistolary poems, Lonnie begins to see less of his darkest memories, and more of his little sister, whose new mama didn't want boys around at first; his big foster brother, who tells him stories; and even more of God, whom he's starting to notice all around him. Ages 9-12 (100 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg

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