A look at the National Book Awards nominees / Young Adults

It's not as easy as it looks. Some of the most critically successful authors took a crack at writing for young adults this season. Michael Chabon's " Summerland " tried to replace Harry Potter's Quidditch with good old-fashioned American baseball, but Chabon's overlong book couldn't hit the snitch out of the park. Strangely, Carl Hiaasen's "Hoot" lacked the comedy and energy fans have come to expect from his quirky adult novels. And Joyce Carol Oates has never released a book into such obscurity as her "Big Mouth & Ugly Girl." But it wasn't for lack of interest from readers: While adults bought fewer books for themselves (hardcover sales fell 17 percent compared to last September), they were buying more for their kids, pushing children's sales up almost 13 percent. Nevertheless, none of these award-winning adult novelists managed to impress the National Book Award committee for Young Adults. (Neil Gaiman's wonderful " Coraline " isn't eligible for this Americans-only award.)

It's a challenging field, as the five challenging nominated books below attest. The best writers for young adults manage to negotiate the transitional nature of their audience, never speaking down to teens or neglecting their concerns about the world.

The $1,000-per-plate awards dinner will be hosted for the fourth year in a row by writer-comedian Steve Martin and attended by about 800 authors, editors, and publishers. Reviews of the nominations for fiction and nonfiction appeared in the Monitor on Oct.24 . Poetry ran on Nov.7 . We'll report the winners live from Times Square on our website Nov. 20.

- Ron Charles

In a world where human potential, aspirations, and grocery lists are monitored by the "feed," the television/computer chip implanted into the brains of infants, even rowdy teenagers do not think to question the most basic mysteries of the universe. So when Titus meets Violet during a night out with friends on the moon, unaware that she was raised without the feed until the late age of six, he is moved - and confused - by her curiosity. M.T. Anderson, author of teen hits "Thirsty" and "Burger Wuss," paints a colorful portrait of a young "unit" whose life is "totally brag," but who is learning for the first time to question and challenge the way things are, even if that means holding the motives of the most influential corporations under scrutiny. References to such nonfictional companies as Coca-Cola and a consistent preoccupation with consumerism and appetite are neither accidental nor subtle: "Feed" is heavily influenced by Orwell's "1984." The language is at times encumbered by excessive slang as Anderson attempts to sound like a teenager, but the novel's true strength is the question it sparks, even beyond the final page: How far in the future is this story really set? (Ages 14 and up; 240 pp.) By Elizabeth Armstrong
by M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, $16.99

The fictional country of Opium, a stretch of land that was once part of Mexico, is home to a boy named Matt. But Matt is no ordinary kid. He is the clone of Opium's powerful drug lord ruler. "Eejits" - humans transformed into mindless slaves through brain implants - work the land, wandering the poppy fields. As Matt watches them, he examines his identity and begins a quest to discover the mysteries surrounding the House of the Scorpion. Science fiction is often considered mechanical entertainment that features laser-trotting heroes and slimy monsters, but two-time Newbery honoree Nancy Farmer uses the genre to ask intriguing questions about what it means to be human and how our moral decisions shape us. Farmer's futuristic tale is not drearily dark, but it's not sugary either, and in a genre where most protagonists are white males, it's interesting to read a thoughtful and vibrant tale about Latino characters. Mexican lore adds color to the narration instead of overpowering it. The result: a novel compelling enough to keep adults turning the pages, while accessible to younger readers. (Ages 12 and up; 400 pp.) By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
by Nancy Farmer
Atheneum, $17.95
"We were proud without knowing it," Naomi Shihab Nye writes of growing up Arab-American - the daughter of a Palestinian father and a German-American mother - in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. "It always felt good to be rooted and connected, but there were those deeply sorrowful headlines ... to carry around like sad weights." In this collection of 60 new and old poems, compiled in the reeling aftermath of Sept. 11, the world behind those headlines emerges in brief, intimate glimpses. "Where do the souls of hills hide/ when there is shooting in the valleys?" Nye asks. "How can there be war/ and the next day eating?" The questions, despite their gravity, are gentle ones. Nye nudges young readers not with the horrors of war, but with close, quiet looks at the lives it threatens: mint leaves snipped into tea; Middle Eastern women "greeting each other with murmur and hum,/ a nod so slight the bucket barely tips;" an Armenian schoolgirl's impossible wish to "go so far away my life would be/ a small thing behind me." It is a world with a whiff of the exotic, where a man makes hats from lemon rinds and a vendor totes a sack of magic sticks, but a world, too, that children can recognize, classrooms where "Laughter lived .../ jingling its pocket of thin coins/ and now it is hiding." (Ages 12 and up; 142 pp.) By Christina McCarroll
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Greenwillow Books, $16.95
Songster, scoundrel, seaman; cartoonist and communist; union seller and tall-tale teller; brilliant and broke-down tired: In 55 years and more than three thousand songs, Woody Guthrie was all these things and more. Since he wrote his famous "This Land was Made for You and Me" in 1940, the Oklahoma native has become a folk hero to generations of singers and song lovers for his fatcat-busting, ease- mistrusting, brave, and singable songs. But in person, Woody was a volatile character. With a hot temper, a taste for drink, and suffering from Huntington's disease, he was prone to sudden violence, even with his children. The story of his life is not an easy read at any age. Decades apart, Woody's sister and his young daughter burned to death. He himself died, like his mother, in a mental hospital. Author Elizabeth Partridge handles these painful scenes, as she does times of triumph for Woody and his music, with care and equanimity. Well-chosen selections from Woody's writings and drawings, and reminiscences by his friends and children, make this in the end a joy of a book - one that fairly celebrates a man whose songs have made so many lost and lonely Americans believe, "This land is your land." (Ages 12 and up; 217 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg
by Elizabeth Partridge
Viking, $21.99

Thirteen-year-old Toswiah Green couldn't have a better life: She loves Denver, her family, her best friend Lulu. But all that changes when her policeman father witnesses two fellow officers kill an unarmed young black man. He makes the agonizing decision to testify against them, and Toswiah, her parents, and her older sister Cameron are swept up into the federal witness protection program. Overnight, Toswiah loses her name, her grandmother, her beautiful home in the Rockies. Her mother seeks solace with Jehovah's Witnesses while her father spends each day staring out the window. Toswiah becomes Evie Thomas, an unhappy teenager who feels as though she's lost her entire identity. Jacqueline Woodson doesn't offer any easy answers in this coming-of-age tale; Evie, like the rest of her family, needs to sort through some tough questions. But Woodson paints a moving portrait of a gutsy, introspective girl whose world has turned upside down but who, by the end, can declare, "I'm no longer who I was in Denver, but at least and at most - I am ." The language and plot are simple enough for young readers, but the characters - and the questions about ethics and identity that the book poses - are complex enough to engage older readers as well. (Ages 10 and up; 181 pp.) By Amanda Paulson
by Jacqueline Woodson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, $15.99

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