BACK TO BATAAN, by Jerome Charyn (Farrar Straus Giroux, 112 pp., $15, ages 10 and up). This novel about a boy dealing with the loss of his father in World War II uses fantasy and adventure to tell how hard it can be to grow up. The author, Jerome Charyn, writes crime fiction for adults, and this is his first book for children.
Jack Dalton is a scholarship student at a private school in New York City. His classmates laugh when he reads aloud his composition about going back to Bataan, where his father was killed, to even up the score. The essay also reveals that at age 11, he is "engaged" to a girl in the class. She breaks off the engagement. He sets a fire and runs away. The novel takes off like one of Jack's fantasies. He falls under the sway of a hobo leader. There is adventure, drama, danger, and crime. It ends with Jack te lling how good for him it has all been in a valedictorian address. Now his classmates are cheering.
While the aloof, ironic, first-person voice is consistently appealing, the main character's self-absorption is never challenged. A shaky sense of right and wrong and a twisting plot line make the book confusing.
JACOB'S RESCUE: A HOLOCAUST STORY, by Malka Drucker and Michael Halperin (Bantam Books, 119 pp., $15, ages 7 to 11). This is based on the true story of Jacob Gutgeld, a Holocaust survivor. As an 8-year-old, he was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto into the hands of Alex Roslan, who had agreed to hide him from the Nazis then occupying the city. The book reads like a novel. Drucker, a Holocaust historian and young people's author, and Halperin, a writer for television, make it a compelling narrative. The s tory is grim, as Jacob loses family members and witnesses brutality at close range. But because he sees it all from the midst of a family that has dared to take him in, there is a sense of hope and humanity here as well. Characters are not deeply drawn, but the scenes of Warsaw under occupation are unforgettable. A reader puts the book down with a fuller sense of history and a better feeling for what life might be like in a Bosnian town today. Most important, the book shows the valor that ordinary people ca n express.