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Clutter and Coziness

September 05, 1993|SUZANNE CURLEY

It's a risky business when adult novelists take a chance on writing for a younger crowd, say 3- to 7-year-olds: Sappy, boring and ugly picture-book flops are plentiful, successes few and far between. The latest writer to tempt fate is Anne Tyler of "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" and "The Accidental Tourist" fame, with a fairy tale entitled Tumble Tower (Orchard: $14.95; ages 3-7). It's illustrated by her daughter, Mitra Modarressi.

Tyler's gamble has paid off. Her amusing plot--about Molly, a messy princess in a royal family of obsessive-compulsive neatniks--is as simple as it should be, and the pictures that go with it are fittingly saucy. The moral of Tyler's tale is that a princess unfazed by half-eaten candy bars left under her chair cushions, kittens nesting among fluffy slippers on the closet floor or a bed "all lumpy and knobby with half-finished books" probably has her priorities straight, and may have much to teach about the way clutter often goes hand-in-hand with coziness.

"Tumble Tower" is funny and has pretty pictures--it's a happy and auspicious debut for this mother-daughter team.

There's lots of great fiction around for teens. But it sometimes seems as if readers just a few years younger get the short end of the stick--novelistically speaking, anyway. So Mark Jonathan Harris' new book, Solay (Bradbury Press: $13.95; 137 pp., ages 8-12) is a find: a funny, sharp and strangely realistic little story about an unhappy preteen and her friendship with a quirky girl from another planet.

Melissa ("Missy") Ballard's autumn of discontent begins when her parents transplant her from what they think of as ratty old New York City to what they promise will be a better life in a glossy new Southern California suburb. Like many parental dreams, however, this one fizzles out. How could the kindly if dense Mr. and Mrs. Ballard foresee that Missy would be universally despised by her new classmates as a grade-grubbing snob with (horrors!) badly coordinated clothes?

Things at school get worse before they get better, due to Missy's alliance with a naked, telepathic imp named Solay who debarks from a UFO one night in Crestwood Estates. Solay's been banished to Earth from her home planet Zoronia because her parents want her to learn how humans do friendship. Solay likes cursing a blue streak, prefers to go starkers when she isn't borrowing Missy's best clothes and gives her new buddy all manner of really bad advice. (The low point for Missy comes when she barfs on her teacher's shoes.) The story ends well, no surprise, but not without keeping readers on edge until the last chapter.

Mark Jonathan Harris' previous books include "Come the Morning," an award-winning novel about a homeless family.

Another fine middle-grade read is the brief, suspenseful historical novel Remember My Name, by Sara H. Banks, with illustrations by Birgitta Saflund (Roberts Rinehart: $8.95, paper; 120 pp., ages 9-12). Set down South in the 1830s, the story takes place in the aftermath of the U.S. government's decision to remove the Cherokees from Georgia so that whites could take over their land and flourishing settlements.

The two plucky heroines are 11-year-old Annie Rising Fawn Stuart (half-Cherokee, half-Scot) and her best friend, Righteous Cry, the newly freed slave of Annie's uncle, a wealthy full-blood farmer. Narrowly escaping being put on the harrowing Trail of Tears--the forced march of the Indians westward to the Arkansas River--the resourceful girls make their way on horseback to a mountain hide-out where they will be safe from soldiers and government scouts.

Along the way, the author's description of the landscape gives readers a glimpse of why it broke Cherokee hearts to leave their beloved land in Georgia for the dry, flat and dusty lands of Oklahoma: "The sun was setting and the mountains were blue and purple and edged with the sun's rays. There was such a glory on the land that it seemed as though God had traced the edges of the mountains in gold and painted the hollows and valleys blue, then sprinkled the heavens over them with gold dust."

This well-written novel, with its charming pen-and-ink illustrations, is part of the Council for Indian Education series. Proceeds from sales of these books go toward publishing other books for and about Native American children.

Linger (HarperCollins: $15; 213 pp., ages 12 and up) , an intriguing new young-adult novel by veteran author M. E. Kerr ("Dinky Hocker L Shoots Smack!"), concerns a duplicitous romance between a hometown golden girl and a guy who's serving in the Gulf War. . . . Hieroglyphics From A to Z: A Rhyming Book With Ancient Egyptian Stencils for Kids (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Rizzoli: $19.95; ages 5 and up) is a visual treat for fans of mummies and other stuff from the vicinity of the old-time Nile; you can use the nifty cardboard stencil sheet included to handprint your own modern-day papyruses.

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