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A Better Place to Live

August 15, 1993|SUZANNE CURLEY

Jimmy Carter has been busy since he and Rosalynn left the White House in 1981. In Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation (Dutton Children's Books: $16.99; 177 pp.; ages 12 and up), he tells young readers what has been occupying him: forging peace in Ethiopia, building shelter for the homeless in the U.S., eradicating diseases such as guinea worm fever (surely one of history's most horrible diseases--read about it in gruesome detail here), re-educating farmers in developing countries, sounding the alarm about tropical rain forests, spreading the gospel about conflict resolution (a.k.a. mediation) and much, much more.

Of course, Jimmy and Rosalynn aren't doing it alone, but with the help of the Carter Center, a kind of nonpartisan think-and-act tank that grew out of Carter's presidential library in Atlanta, Ga. "Talking Peace" tells about how the Carter Center does what it does, and includes a bit of history as well. There's an account of the Camp David meetings with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in January, 1991; how, for example, Carter's personally addressing souvenir photos to each of Begin's eight grandchildren was the zero-hour stroke of genius that softened the Israeli leader's tough stance.

Useful for its clear explication of the horrendous toll that war has taken and continues to take on humanity, "Talking Peace" is even more helpful in inspiring hope in the reader who otherwise might be overwhelmed by how much needs to be done. Practical suggestions for active and effective citizenship abound, and photos, maps and charts add to the book's value as an addition to high-school global studies or civics classes (which can generally use all the help they can get). For readers who feel there are gaps they'd like to fill in their knowledge of recent and current events in places from Azerbaijan to Zaire, Carter's book is a good place to begin.

There are flaws. Regrettably absent, rather shockingly so, in the former president's otherwise admirable overview of the horrors of war is any mention of rape--even in his synopsis of the conflict in Yugoslavia. Was this oversight on Carter's part, or did some misguided editor decide to "censor" references to this particular aspect of battle? Along these same lines, in his "Human Rights" chapter, why is nothing said about the burgeoning movement to consider crimes against women as human rights violations?

Aside from these failings, Carter's book is a well-written and heartfelt piece of work. It makes one appreciate anew a politician who always seemed somehow too real a person--and too "sensitive" a man--for the job of president. Those of us who liked him immensely in the old days will be even more impressed to see the kind of effort he's putting in now to make the world a better place. "Talking Peace," though meant for teens, is a book from which readers of all ages have a lot to learn--about working for change as well as peace.

"And so I went, in my guacamole-colored jacket," writes Gary Soto in Small Faces (Dell/Laurel-Leaf, 137 pp., $4.50 paperback; ages 12 and up). "So embarrassed, so hurt, I couldn't even do my homework. I received Cs on quizzes, and forgot the state capitals and the rivers of South America, our friendly neighbor. Even the girls who had been friendly blew away like loose flowers. . . . I blame that jacket for those bad years."

Soto's memory of how his mother sent him, "bitter as a penny," to junior high wearing a cheap and hideous green jacket, is typical of the author's seemingly total recall of his youth. Soto writes wonderfully well, making this slim collection of brief essays--like much of his other work, about growing up poor and Mexican-American in Fresno--a delight from beginning to end.

Soto is an award-winning poet who teaches Chicano studies and English at the University of California at Berkeley. Two of his other young adult books, "A Summer Life" and "Living Up the Street," are also available in paperback from the same publisher.

In Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel The Secret Garden, a 10-year-old newly orphaned girl named Mary Lennox comes to rural England to live with her rich uncle, the glowering widower Lord Archibald Craven, and his bedridden son, the peevish and pasty Colin. After quite a bit of mystery, suspense and magic, Mary--along with her allies, the crusty gardener Ben Weatherstaff and the crafty country boy Dickon--cures Colin of his invalidism in the glorious garden created years back by his mother ("The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet and on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together.").

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