Bringing history to life. Books for young readers

WHETHER she sets her tales in 12th-century Japan or latter-day America, Katherine Paterson always writes about the universal human heart and the depth of its affections. The winner of two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards, she may aim her work at young readers, but she often attracts a wider audience. Speaking about the appeal of historical fiction, Paterson once offered this story:

``A friend who is a middle-aged American businessman came up to me after church one day to tell me how much he'd enjoyed `The Sign of the Chrysanthemum.' He hadn't expected to, not knowing anything about ancient Japan, but the thing that particularly appealed to him was how nearly the dreams and feelings of those ancient Japanese matched his own. And he concluded by saying to me, `People really haven't changed, have they?'''

That anecdote is one of many included in the recently published Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, compiled and edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, New York, $20, 640 pages). As food for thought, this sampling of lectures, panel presentations, and informal remarks about children's books collected during a decade of discussion at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Boston's Simmons College offers rich and tasty fare. The editors touch on many genres, from high fantasy to poetry to contemporary - and historical - fiction.

As it happens, it's been a good publishing season for history brought to life. Three new titles in particular, for readers in Grades 5 to 9, offer entertaining and thought-stirring adventures.

Newbery Medalist Scott O'Dell sets his latest novel in the New World of 1609 and peoples it with several authentic characters, including King James I of England and Capt. John Smith. The Serpent Never Sleeps, A Novel of Jamestown and Pocahontas (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $15.95, 227 pages, ages 11 to 13) traces the fortunes of Serena Lynn, a gentle English lass who abandons the comfortable court life at Foxcroft Castle for the unknown dangers of the Virginia colony. The ``serpent'' of the title is part of a gold ring given to Serena by King James, with the promise that it will protect her as long as she wears it.

O'Dell's trademark attention to historical detail and place makes this story believable: We, too, endure Serena's long sea voyage aboard the Sea Venture, and we shiver with her at the first sight of the destitute Jamestown colony. The leading characters, including the enigmatic Indian princess Pocahontas and Serena's would-be suitor, are well drawn, and illustrator Ted Lewin turns in yet another winning jacket cover.

In fact, so many of the right elements come together in this novel that it's difficult to pin down the reason for the slightly ho-hum feeling that lingers after the last page is turned. It's a good story, yes, but somewhere along the way the author seems to detach himself from the action, and as a result he risks losing readers who may be coming to his work for the first time.

By contrast, the brisk narrative pace that's set at the start of An Enemy Among Them, by Deborah H. DeFord and Harry S. Stout (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $13.95, 203 pages, ages 10 and up), is maintained right up to the last sentence and its ringing declaration of freedom. The time is the Revolutionary War, the place a German-American community in Pennsylvania. Youngsters who have heard about Hessian mercenaries in social studies classes may be surprised to find Christian, a likable German soldier, sharing top billing with Margaret Volpert, yet another strong female lead.

Although there are almost too many coincidences to believe (for starters, Christian wounds Margaret's brother, John, in battle, and then ends up in the same makeshift hospital as John, with Margaret nursing them both), the writers somehow carry it off. They make a believable case for both sides of the conflict - while denouncing the suffering war can cause - and explore timeless issues of love and loyalty. In the midst of battle and bereavement, this is a novel that offers readers a true-to-life glimpse of a period in American history when other young teens were unrelenting in their pursuit of freedom and innocent in their exploration of friendships.

Moving ahead to Civil War days, and keeping time with the advancing 140th New York Infantry, we meet drummer boy Charlie Skedaddle (William Morrow, New York, $11.75, 186 pages, ages 10 to 14). Author Patricia Beatty, who wrote about the Old West in last season's ebullient ``Behave Yourself, Bethany Brant'' (Morrow, New York, 1986) and who has previously described the disruption caused by the Civil War in ``Turn Homeward, Hannalee'' (Morrow, New York, 1984), here gives her readers the kind of crackling good story they've come to expect.

Twelve-year-old Charlie Quinn, a street tough from New York City, runs away from home and enlists with the Union Army to avenge his older brother's death at Gettysburg. His first sight of battle terrifies him, however, and he ``skedaddles'' into the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he's befriended by a cantankerous old mountain woman, proves his courage by killing a marauding panther, and wins the love of shy Sarie Giffen. What makes this such a winning tale is the author's witty way with dialogue and her sharp eye for both the ridiculous and the sublime. Beatty writes realistically of the greed that motivated soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and she doesn't hold back from depicting the horrors of front-line fighting. But above all, she keeps things hopping!

Diane Manuel is a free-lance book reviewer.

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