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Summer Camp Lesson : THE GOATS by Brock Cole (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $11.95; 184 pp.; age 10-up)

November 01, 1987|Kristiana Gregory

It's a nightmare most of us dreamed as a child. You're standing by the blackboard giving an oral report in front of the whole class. Some kids snicker; others point at you; soon everyone erupts in laughter. Slowly, with terror in your heart, you realize you aren't wearing any clothes! This gripping fear is what launches Brock Cole's young adult novel, his first and a fine one that won't be gathering dust.

Summer camp somewhere in America. In a hazing rite, a boy and girl are stripped then stranded on a small island. They are scared, cold, humiliated and, worst of all, they are naked. Howie and Laura are the "goats," chosen simply because their fellow campers decided they were dorky enough to be victims. The book jacket illustrates their midnight escape from the island: two kids swimming a log across a lake. That picture alone will entice readers.

The story is great. You wince for Howie and Laura, for their awkwardness and for their hurts that are rooted in a pain we can't see. Every kid can identify with being a victim, and they will certainly want to stay on the sidelines as the "goats" discover character and courage. Laura at first cries, "Oh, God, I need somebody to take care of me!" but by the end, she has surpassed herself. Howie, too, is astonished he isn't the wimp of old. They stumble, they survive, then they triumph.

Meanwhile, the writing's so good, you hardly notice it. Camp scenes are right out of memory lane, and feelings are real. Here's a worried mother: "Lately she had been willing only to let Laura annoy her. There is not much of an investment in annoyance, and no great return. But terror is something else. You find out exactly how much you love someone when you're terrified."

The "goats" are outsiders as well as have-nots. On a beach, they watch another adolescent couple, but this duo is tan and happy, dressed well and oozing confidence, just "like an advertisement for shampoo or sugarless gum." Lonely kids might also feel cold, not just the figurative kind. When Howie leans closer to Laura "it was both pleasant and alarming. . . . He was surprised, too, at how warm she was. When you don't touch people very often, you forget that they are really warm."

Cole titles each chapter and tops it with a drawing the size of a baseball card. You might remember that his recent picture book, "The Giant Toe," was a Parents' Choice Award Winner for Literature. This artist/writer has talent with a capital T .

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