NOT since Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) toppled all the established limits of books for children with his ``Alice in Wonderland'' (1865) have writers and publishers of children's books worked so hard to make juvenile reading fun. Experts say that reading enjoyment is the key to fostering literacy. ``Pleasure reading is self-directed learning, creating and nurturing the child's own innate motivations for the things he [she] is eager to learn and experience,'' says Paul Copperman of the Institute for Reading Development in San Francisco.
A current publishing trend - at least in books for middle readers - is toward humor, toward simple, clear writing, and accessibility to all children. Four books this spring are worth looking at.
Charlotte the Starlet, by Barbara Ware Holmes (Harper & Row, New York, $11.95, 120 pp., ages 9 to 11), is the author's second book about Charlotte Cheetham. This young protagonist desperately wants to be a writer. Drawing a blank one day, she discovers that by turning her negative feelings and frustrations with fellow classmates into creative energy, she finds lots to write about and also finds sudden popularity in school.
As school lunches become increasingly alive with Charlotte's readings, a moral dilemma arises: Should she use her talents in more literary avenues and write the school play, or continue pandering to public taste and stay a hack writer, as she calls it.
Charlotte doesn't see adults as adversaries. In fact, her parents and teachers share some helpful insights with her, though she ultimately acts on her own best judgment. This is a story with positive interchange between adults and children. Written with more than a dollop of humor and youthful candor, ``Charlotte the Starlet'' is easy reading for third and fourth graders.
Betsy Byars, whose ``Summer of the Swans'' won the Newbery Medal in 1971, is a veteran author for young people. Her latest book, The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown (Viking-Kestrel, New York, $11.95, 160 pp., ages 8 to 12), is a fully worked out novel with a comic hero whose only distinction in life is to be chosen to collect papers at the end of class. Like Charlotte, Bingo writes to express himself: He writes all the burning questions he has about life in a journal as an assignment from his favorite teacher, Mr. Markham.
Readers will recognize the pitfalls, agonies, and joys of elementary school life in this book. Bingo's first brush with romantic feelings happens as he falls in love with three girls in two minutes. He has a teacher who is acting increasingly unstable, and he and his friend Melissa try to get to the bottom of it. We meet Billy Wentworth, the sixth-grade Rambo, who moves next door to Bingo and his family.
There is a genuine drama, too, as the possibility of a confrontation with the school principal looms: The students stage a wear-in, opposing the recent school ruling against wearing T-shirts with words printed on them. The short chapters and comic style are designed to appeal to young readers and to move them right into other books.
The Three and Many Wishes of Jason Reid, by Hazel Hutchins (Viking-Kestrel, New York, $10.95, 88 pp., ages 7 to 10), makes the familiar folk tale of ``The Fisherman and His Wife'' contemporary. However, 11-year-old Jason is well aware of the danger of having too many wishes come true. So he and his friend Penny keep their gifts (the magic baseball glove that can't miss a catch, a fish tank, a 10-speed bike) hidden until they can think of a worthy wish that will benefit others. They always make their third wish a wish for three more wishes, which gives them more time to think. Quicksilver, the elf who grants the three wishes, is getting tired of supplying continual gifts and wants to ``go through'' to his own world.
Simply told, this not-so-original story is nonetheless appealing. It depicts two very decent youngsters with a social conscience, who find a way to help even their crotchety neighbor, Silas Becker.
Having to move is bothering 11-year-old Robby Miller and his 13-year-old sister, Peggy, in Moving In, by Alfred Slote (Lippincott, New York, $11.95, 167 pp., ages 8 to-11). Their dad is a widower and so it is just the three of them who move into Arborville, Mich., when a job opportunity appears for Mr. Miller.
Robby is a mediocre soccer player who finds solace in riding his bike alone. He tells the story in first person, and it is he who nearly ruins everything by his bold plans to get the whole family back to Watertown, Mass. Both Robby and Peggy are afraid their father is going to marry Mrs. Lowenfeld, his recently divorced business partner.
But humor is not the sole motivating force in this book. ``Moving In'' is essentially about relationships, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old narrator: newcomers vs. the neighborhood kids, single parents and children, brothers and sisters, divorced husbands and wives. However, in this novel humor derives from a child's perception of the dynamics at work in people's interconnecting lives. Well-paced and solidly written, it is a book young readers will enjoy and identify with.
Although these books probably won't be considered classics in years to come, each of them answers the need for books that engage and amuse and encourage middle readers to read for the pure pleasure of it. Not a bad motive, at all.
Stephen Fraser is associate editor of the children's magazine Highlights for Children.