BOOK covers sometimes do tell a story. Even a quick glance at this season's best young-adult titles, for example, shows that heroines far outnumber their male counterparts. As the National Organization for Women celebrates its 20th anniverary by boosting family concerns to a more prominent position on the national agenda, a number of spunky 11- and 12-year-olds are making literary strides in that same direction. The families depicted in three especially fine new novels range from traditional to single parent to adoptive. What's more, they offer young readers a good selection of lively role models, honest feelings, and finely tuned humor and suspense. In place of flashy writing and trendy subjects, the authors give us characters that come from the heart and enduring stories.
Come A Stranger, by Cynthia Voight (Atheneum/Macmillan, New York, 190 pp., $13.95, ages 12 and up), takes a refreshingly upbeat look at contemporary black family life in a quiet community on the Maryland shore. As 11-year-old Mina Smith surges from one adventure to another, often feeling ``the devilment rising up in her'' but trying her best to live up to the expectations of her minister father, author Voight gives us yet another memorable coming-of-age novel. She's done it before, in her 1983 Newbery Award-winning ``Dicey's Song,'' and in the 1984 Newbery Honor Book, ``A Solitary Blue.'' Here again she displays a remarkable talent for articulating the feelings that both entangle and ennoble so many adolescents.
Held at a polite distance by her white classmates at ballet camp, Mina ``felt trapped in her skin, locked in it, like a jail.'' But her despair at being the outsider begins to disintegrate when she meets the slightly irreverent young minister who's come to take over her father's pulpit for the summer. After talking with the Rev. Shipp, Mina feels ``... a smile building up in her, of mischief and gladness and being free. They thought they were turning her out, turning their backs on her, but really they were sending her home.''
For Mina, going home meant ``being where people knew how to keep close to one another,'' and the second half of the book gives us as thoughtful a teen-age odyssey as has come along in some time. As Mina's mother and father gently urge her forward, and her brothers, sisters, and friends provide plenty of distractions, the story recalls the triumphs of young Cassie Logan, the feisty black heroine of the 1976 Newbery winner, ``Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,'' by Mildred Taylor. That book was subsequently made into an after-school movie for television, and this one would provide an equally eloquent script.
Another preacher's daughter takes center stage - literally - in Behave Yourself, Bethany Brant, by Patricia Beatty (Morrow Junior Books, New York, 172 pp., $11.95, ages 10-14). Eleven-year-old Bethany has had to play the part of an angel in one too many Christmas pageants in rural, turn-of-the-century Texas. In the new town where she moves with her father and brother after her mother's death, she finally puts her foot down and finds another hapless classmate to act the angel role.
``It's wearing down my nerves,'' Bethany says of her efforts to behave herself all the time. Author Beatty, a teacher and librarian who's turned out a number of prizewinning children's books, gives her readers another enjoyable character here. Although her Bethany is no goody-goody, she is good-hearted, and she's been brought up ``to find the good in folks - to hunt hard for it sometimes....'' She does a commendable and highly entertaining job of walking the straight and narrow - most of the time.
The 12-year-old heroine of Barbary, by Vonda N. McIntyre (Houghton Miflin, Boston, 192 pp., $12.95, ages 12 and up), is looking for a new family. After spending years in of juvenile institutions and foster homes, Barbary feels she has one last chance to find some happiness, and possibly love, with her mother's closest college friend and his daughter.
This novel is set in the future, at a time when physics graduates all speak Navajo (``It's so different from English, particularly in the way it deals with time ...'') and ``hook pollution'' from flying Velcro particles has become a space-travel hazard. Barbary sets out via space shuttle to rendezvous with her new adoptive family who live on the research station Einstein. By the time she's settled in for good, she's encountered aliens that look like crystal columns and learned some timelsss lessons about intergalactic race relations from a black woman astronaut.
This is Vonda McIntyre's first novel for teens, and she brings to it the depth of characterization and well-researched scientific premises that have marked her Nebula- and Hugo-Award-winning sci-fi books for adults. Readers are in for an adventure - and an adventure in learning.