Night Kites by M. E. Kerr (Zolotow/Harper Junior: $11.50).
M. E. Kerr has a genius for striding up on her readers' blind sides and delivering the unexpected. She was doing it as long ago as 1972 with "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack," which had nothing to do with drugs. She's done it again in "Night Kites," her most important book.
It's about the rapport between two brothers separated by a 10-year age difference, and a secret. But it begins with the younger brother, 17-year-old Erick Rudd, in a situation familiar enough to lure the most traditional young reader.
He has a best friend, Jack, and a best girl, Dill. She's so wholesome that she wears vanilla extract for perfume. They're three virginal high school seniors, and both boys hope to liberate themselves from that condition.
Enter Nicki Marrs, whose own father calls her Fickle Pickle, not without reason. An oft-told tale unfolds, at first predictably as Nicki shifts her attentions from Jack to Erick in a move destined to detonate the entire foursome.
The authors precisely convey youthful delusions about the self and the future. " 'I'll probably marry this girl!' " Jack says of Nicki, who hasn't the attention span to get through an evening with him. Soon, Erick's saying, with masterful understatement, " 'I love you, Nicki, but you're not easy.' "
There's enough for a novel here, but at the moment of his sexual awakening, Erick learns that the older brother he idolizes, Pete, is coming home to die, of AIDS.
This story stands beside Judith Guest's "Ordinary People," another chronicle of unqualified disaster striking a family dedicated to unexamined values and a respectable facade. " 'How many times have you heard Mom say we were the perfect family?' " Pete somberly asks Erick.
Too typically, the family has never acknowledged the son's homosexuality until he's dying. The parents struggle in greater pain than some young readers will notice, for they suffer the ultimate parental tragedy; they can preserve neither their illusions nor their son. But the burden of this beautiful book rests in the bonding between these brothers.
Erick finds he can't tell Pete about his life, "The little-brother-in-the-throes-of-first-passion bit, while (Pete) was trying not to puke after his weekly chemotherapy, writing his will, staffing an AIDS hotline in New York (on) weekends, listening to one horror story after the other."
But eventually, they manage to re-establish the old links between them and forge new ones for the time they have left.
Erick's story is dramatized, and Pete's is mainly preached, but then the author has a lot of hard information to convey to readers who will have heard little of it before.
Would the book have been stronger, more straightforward if the AIDS victim had been of high school age? Possibly. And harder to pull off, too. Adolescents are even quicker than the rest of us to practice their tolerance at a safe distance. Perhaps "Night Kites" will smooth the way for another novel that reaches young readers where they live.
The suggested reader age given is 12 and up. Way up, let's hope. This is a novel to be shared with adults, with families like the Rudds who have to face a tragedy that couldn't possibly happen to people like them.