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YOUNG ADULTS : Insider Out

June 20, 1993|SUZANNE CURLEY

Outsiders have always been "in" in young-adult fiction. Those who deviate from the norm--especially amid the intense peer pressure of teen-age years--may make us uncomfortable in real life but fascinate us in the pages of a book. The reason could be that reading about characters whose outward appearance or behavior or life circumstances set them apart is a safe way to explore the pain of our own feelings of separateness.

Among the latest batch of fiction for teen-agers and preteens are several excellent books with main characters who see themselves as "The Other." Kyoko Mori's beautifully written first novel, Shizuko's Daughter (Edge / Henry Holt: $15.95; ages 12 and up), set in Japan, addresses the particular loneliness of the child of a mother who died a suicide. Yuki, who is 12 when her desperately unhappy mother, Shizuko, kills herself, lives an isolated new life with her cold-fish of a father and his malicious new wife. She feels unable to bridge the gap between her grief-stricken self and others: "Yuki tried to imagine it . . . feeling that love was worthwhile. It was difficult. All she could think of was herself now running around the track, a fast lap, a slow lap, endlessly, while the others fell in love." Amazingly enough though, given these particulars, Yuki's life is not grim but buoyed by the legacies that her mother bequeathed her: a love of art, nature and her aging grandparents. In the end, she forges a new life and even a sweet and happy romance.

In a much more "pop" vein, Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (Greenwillow: $14; age 12 and up) teams two unlikely friends: a severely disfigured girl named Sarah and a boy nicknamed Moby, whose body type gives rise to headlines such as "Orca Swamps Competition" after swim meets. (Sarah's scars come from an abusive father; Moby's fat is due to genetic inheritance.) The many-stranded plot--which, while gripping, often teeters toward soap opera--involves rescuing Sarah from the clutches of her evil parent, exposing the student body's biggest religious zealot as a fraud of major proportions, a frantic search for Sarah's mother in the gaming halls of Reno, Nev., as well as a stabbing, an abortion and an adoption. (All five of this author's previous works of fiction--including "Athletic Shorts" and "Chinese Handcuffs"--have won American Library Association awards for Best Book for Young Adults.)

"Was there a correct term for someone like Sunita Sen? On the outside, an Indian body dressed in American clothes. On the inside, total confusion." In The Sunita Experiment by Mitali Perkins (Joy Street / Little Brown: $14.95; ages 11-14), a seventh-grader whose parents are Bengali immigrants finds a year-long visit from her grandparents, Didu and Dadu, to be a mixed blessing. How can Sunni--already feeling socially disadvantaged because of her cinnamon-hued skin and her parents' weird values--continuing her budding romance with the eighth-grader she dubs "All-American Golden Boy"? She cringes with shame at the very idea of "Didu eating curry with her hands, asking Michael the meaning of every other word" or "Dadu, squatting in the garden, his white linen knotted around his legs, reciting Bengali poetry to the soil and the seeds." When Sunni finally gives Michael a chance, though, he turns out to be utterly captivated by her family's "strange" ways.

Cristina Salat's slim, suspenseful novel Living in Secret (Bantam Starfire: $15; ages 10-14) explores what being a family really means. Several years after being given into the custody of her father, 11-year-old Amelia agrees to be kidnaped by her mother and her long-term female lover. The idea appeals greatly to Amelia, but she soon realizes the down side: She can't even attend school or take out a library book under her real name without fear of discovery. Even though the scenario is an extreme one, Salat's book is a sensitively written look at the tough realities of a child whose circle of loved ones is far outside the pale of prevailing "family values."

Tolerance of individual differences is addressed from a nonfiction viewpoint in Susan Kuklin's wonderful new collection of interviews called Speaking Out: Teenagers Take on Race, Sex and Identity (Putnam: $15.95; ages 12 and up). The 18 interviewees who speak out here attend Bayard Rustin High School in Manhattan, where the racial mix is one-quarter each African-American, Asian, white and Latino.

Since neither the views of young people nor those of the very old are generally much sought after in our society, it is a privilege to read the many wise, witty and creative viewpoints recorded here. Kuklin's previous books, on teen-age pregnancy ("What Do I Do Now?") and AIDS ("Fighting Back"), were both judged ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

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