A look at the National Book Awards finalists / Young People's Literature

For two reasons, young adult books will be featured more prominently at this year's National Book Awards ceremony: First, the unusual obscurity of all the fiction finalists means that attention won't be focused on a few celebrity novelists. Second, Judy Blume will receive the National Book Foundation's lifetime achievement award. She's the author of more than 20 books for young people, with 75 million copies in print. Her most popular titles include "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," and a series about a young boy named Fudge. Since discovering in the 1980s that her books were being placed on restricted shelves or removed from libraries, she's been actively involved in the fight against censorship, a likely subject of her keynote address at the ceremony on Nov. 17 in New York. Garrison Keillor will serve as the master of ceremonies. - Ron Charles

HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART, by Deb Caletti, Simon & Schuster, $15.95

"Honey, Baby, Sweetheart" smartly handles the stereotypical quandary of teens: infatuation vs. true love. Sixteen-year-old Ruby McQueen, known as The Quiet Girl, can't understand why her mom won't close the door on Ruby's dad, the continual heartbreaker. Then she finds herself on the back of a motorcycle owned by wealthy and irresistibly good-looking Travis Becker and discovers how hard it is to let go of a thrilling romance. Ruby sees this relationship as an opportunity to reinvent herself, to become fearless and daring like the hang gliders she watches from a distance in her small Northwestern town. Enter the Casserole Queens: a group of senior ladies and one gent who gather to discuss books, led by Ruby's mom. Reluctantly, Ruby attends some meetings to get her mind off Travis. She finally shakes her obsession when she joins the Queens' brazen mission to reunite two long-lost lovers. Caletti's energetic prose, frequently laden with slang and too many literary devices - "like, you know" - may tire critical readers, but young adults will hear its authenticity. This multigenerational story should gain the attention of anyone who has forgotten the urgencies of youthful infatuation or who understands the necessity of embracing "true love." By Enicia Fisher

GODLESS, by Pete Hautman, Simon & Schuster, $23.95

Many teenagers are apathetic toward religion, and Jason Bock is no exception - until he decides on a whim to create his own church. But Jason isn't interested in testing the boundaries of his faith by worshiping an unseen deity. Instead, he chooses the town's most formidable landmark: the water tower. The giant metal dome is the keeper of the source of life on earth. To stand beneath it inspires awe (it holds 1 million gallons) and offers the promise of atonement (climbing to the top). When Jason shares this new theology with his friends, they eagerly become followers. But Jason isn't exactly serious. It's almost as if he's deconstructed Christianity only to rebuild it again in the shape of a water tower, and he knows it. To his surprise, his friends get swept away in the idea of climbing the tower and declare their own set of commandments. And as in most religious groups, bickering creeps in. The book culminates in a terrifying evening when the group climbs the tower and breaks inside for a swim. The book offers no spiritual epiphany to divide right from wrong, but that isn't the point. Spiritual foundations are built from experience. Hautman delivers an enjoyable and believable tale of one young man's struggle with the power and influence of religion. By Kendra Nordin

HARLEM STOMP! by Laban Carrick Hill, Little, Brown, $18.95

Exquisitely designed by Christopher Meyers and beautifully written by Hill, "Harlem Stomp!" entices both eye and mind. Through song lyrics, poems, paintings, and playbills, the Harlem Renaissance - a lively period of artistic achievement among African-Americans - comes alive. Though aimed at a young adult audience, this is really a coffee-table volume, appropriate for the whole family. Stomp's first four chapters set the stage for the book's focal point - New York in the 1920s. The need for this is obvious, since, as Hill points out, "The Harlem Renaissance was the culmination of a change in attitude that had begun two decades earlier." From there, the book examines Harlem's intellectuals, authors, actors, and musicians. Throughout, Hill's narrative is thorough yet efficient; his critique, respectful but clear. Sometimes, he lets facts and figures make his point for him. Elsewhere, he states the truth plainly. Never is he shrill, didactic, or condescending, though. "Harlem Stomp!" is a Thanksgiving feast, filling the reader with the exuberance of life during Harlem's height. The book works equally well, though, as a snack. Every page offers irresistible tidbits. However you approach this book, you'll be satisfied - heart, mind, and soul. By Trudy Palmer

THE LEGEND OF BUDDY BUSH, by Sheila P. Moses, Simon & Schuster, $15.95

"A lot of truth is hidden around here," confesses Pattie Mae Sheals. Truth that a 12-year-old living in a grown folks' world cannot share. Truth that a black child in the segregated South cannot speak. All she can do is wish. So she does: "If only the trees could talk or the dirt could sing." If only. But it's 1947 in Rich Square, N.C., and the "truth" is about as unbiased as the racist whites who run the town. Truth, as Pattie Mae sees it, begins with Buddy Bush, her forward-thinking uncle, who returns from a stint in Harlem to stir up the dust in their small-minded town with his Northern notions about equality. But the man who starts as a hero in Pattie Mae's eyes soon becomes a national legend when he's accused of a crime and unjustly jailed. The effect on Pattie Mae's life - and on Rich Square - is electric: inciting outrage and fostering solidarity in white and black communities as events spiral toward their inevitable - and then, ultimately, surprise - conclusion. Along the way, injustices emerge from behind the once-closed doors of the grown folks' bedroom - and American history. But, as Moses takes pains to detail, there is still the strength and love of family - and the hope of a brighter future - to make the passage a little sweeter. By Jenny Sawyer

LUNA, by Julie Anne Peters, Little, Brown, $16.95

For as long as he can remember, Liam has felt he was a girl trapped inside a boy's body. Now the high school senior, who secretly reveals his "inner female" only at night, says he's tired of deceit: It's time to set Luna free. His younger sister and sole confidante, Regan, has struggled to protect him while dealing with her own identity crisis. When Liam tells Regan he plans to shed his male shell and "transition" into Luna, she panics. How will the world respond, and can her brother cope with the psychological battery? Liam's macho father only makes matters worse. As Luna reveals herself, she's met by everything from crude hatred to cautious acceptance. The book sensitively probes not just the struggles of a transgender teen, but the degree to which society imposes traditional molds on men and women - and how far the scale can slide before an individual is ostracized. While Liam tries to figure out his identity, his stay-at-home mom trades her vacuum cleaner for a career, and he notices that his sister cares little about her appearance. Peters nudges readers to question why society delineates gender roles instead of encouraging people to remain true to themselves. "Luna" contains rough language and deals with suicide and sexuality. Best suited for mature teens. By Stephanie Broadhurst

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