FAMILY is a fundamental concern of children. The absence of family, no less than its presence, shapes a child's character and decisions. Recently, several veteran writers for children have focused on protagonists struggling to create families where none exist. The most exciting of these new books is Lois Lowry's novel, Rabble Starkey (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $12.95, 192 pp., ages 9-13). Lowry has created an intelligent heroine longing for a traditional family. Named Parable (to ward off trouble) by the Bible-loving grandmother who raised her, Rabble was born when her mother, Sweet Hosanna, was 14 years old and abandoned by the child's father. Sweet-Ho has made the best of her life and is caring for two children whose mother, Mrs. Bigelow, is hospitalized for mental illness.
Moving in with the Bigelows suits Rabble just fine. Veronica Bigelow is her best friend, little Gunther Bigelow is her favorite kid, and Mr. Bigelow is both wise and generous. In fact, Rabble begins to feel this is the family she never had, until Mrs. Bigelow's recovery forces her to confront and accept change as courageously as Sweet-Ho does in leaving the Bigelows, setting up an independent household with Rabble, and starting a college education. Rabble discovers it is love, not convention, that shapes a family, and love can come from many directions and take many forms.
Lowry's main cast is memorably individualized, but so are her secondary characters, including a cranky old neighbor and a local juvenile delinquent who, thanks to Rabble, briefly become a kind of family for each other. The Appalachian dialect is natural and the point of view carefully consistent with the development of a maturing sixth-grade observer. The scenes are realistic but varied in tone, from Mrs. Bigelow's wrenchingly depicted nervous breakdown to the quiet mother-daughter conversations between Sweet-Ho and Rabble.
Just as realistic, but set a hundred years earlier, is Colby Rodowsky's historical novel Fitchett's Folly (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $11.95, 166 pp., 9-12). Sometime during the 1880s, on an island off the East Coast of the United States, Sarey Ann Littleton watches through a terrible storm as her father struggles to rescue passengers from a wrecked ship and dies in the attempt. One of the survivors is a girl Sarey's age, Faith Wilkinson. She loses her entire family and is taken in by Sarey's aunt, who has raised Sarey and her young brother Henry since their mother's death.
Sarey's grief takes the form of anger toward Faith and the attention she gets from the islanders. She's also upset about having to go to work with ``Aunt-Mama'' at the hotel while Faith, Henry, and Sarey's friend Reba play all day. Yet the community life offers a sustaining power that allows Sarey time to recover. She sees, in the superficiality of an elegant hotel guest's passing interest in her, how constrastingly strong is her stepmother's love and sense of responsibility. Here, too, the dialect is easy, the plot vividly sustained. Despite some occasional exaggeration of characters, the blend of historical setting and first-person realism is a strong and unusual one.
Although Eleanora Tate has cast her novel in the present, it, too, has roots in the past. The Secret of Gumbo Grove (Watts, New York, $11.95, 266 pp., ages 9-13) is an intriguing story about 11-year-old Raisin Stackhouse tracing her black community's history through accounts of those buried in a local South Carolina graveyard. Raisin has a passion for history, even to the point of defying her parents and church authorities who don't want to stir up trouble by dragging out old tales of racial prejudice. But Raisin persists, discovering, with the help of an old neighbor, that one of the state's first senators and richest citizens was a black man. Families, Raisin finds, have deep interlocking connections that can make people both fearful and proud. There's a lot of humor to leaven this message, along with lively dynamics among Raisin's friends and sisters, one of whom is competing in a beauty contest. The writing occasionally rambles, but that very quality accounts for some fresh passages of dialogue.
Readers with lighter taste will encounter family problems of a different dimension in Stephanie S. Tolan's The Great Skinner Getaway (Four Winds, New York, $11.95, 176 pp., ages 10-13), which relates the wacky adventures of a large crew aboard a small mobile home during their summer vacation. The Skinners burn their bridges behind them, renting their house and setting out with a large dog, two cats, and no experience in trailering. From the first attempt at packing to the last broken axle, this novel details the hazards of campsites, hiking trips, and four kids congested with two disorganized parents. Like the other books in Tolan's series on the Skinners, it provides amusing evidence that families and family entertainment are alive and well.
Betsy Hearne is editor of the Bulletin of the Children's Book Center at the University of Chicago and the author of ``Choosing Books for Children: A Commonsense Guide'' and three children's books.