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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

A STRING IN THE HARP, By Nancy Bond (Aladdin Paperbacks/Simon & Schuster: $4.95; 370 pp.; ages 10 to 14) : COLD SHOULDER ROAD, By Joan Aiken (Delacorte Press: $15.95; 283 pp.; ages 10 and up) : FACING THE MUSIC, By Margaret Willey (Delacorte Press: $14.95; 184 pp.; ages 12 and up)

May 19, 1996|KAREN STABINER

We have all heard the news: The same girls who rule the universe in first grade somehow hit the self-esteem skids about the time they enter adolescence, at about the moment when boys cease to be an irritation and become an inspiration for all sorts of deferential behavior.

Fiction can be a nice antidote, particularly this month's offerings. There are certain enduring conventions in children's stories that prevail even in these books--the deceased or disappeared mother, the grounded young girl with reserves of domestic strength (nobody dreams of nuclear medicine as an escape from the ravages of teen-hood)--but the authors' vivid imagination keeps them happily at a distance from cliche.

A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond is a Newbery Honor Book for ages 10 to 14 about 15-year-old Jen Morgan, left behind on the East Coast when her bereaved father unexpectedly takes a teaching job in Wales and departs with her younger brother Peter and sister Becky.

Jen remains with an aunt and uncle so that she can finish high school and guarantee a bright future at a good college, but when she visits her family during Christmas vacation she has a lot to contend with--a reclusive, grieving father, a bewildered if amiable little sister and a bitter, sarcastic brother.

Then Peter discovers a harp key with magical properties that seems to have belonged to the 16th century bard Taliesin. Everything changes--and even if Peter changes more than his sister does, she is the foundation of the family, the one who helps to draw it together again.

Like Meg in "Little Women," she raises resourcefulness to an art form.

The central family in Cold Shoulder Road, the latest installment in Joan Aiken's "Wolves Chronicles," is an unlikely one--essentially made up of Is Twite, the spry, outspoken heroine, and her cousin Arun. Those of you who have not encountered them in an earlier book can rest assured you can jump right into this mystical tale of their search for Arun's mother without having read of their other adventures. This is an eerie universe where people disappear or remain silent for years, when smugglers called the Merry Gentry have terrorized an entire region--and where a couple of spunky adolescents can figure out the world far more effectively than the grown-ups can.

The English country dialect makes it slow going at first, until you get into the rhythm of the language, but in the end it serves Aiken's purpose. You have to leave this world to fully experience Is' and Arun's escapades--which seems to be exactly what she had in mind. For readers 10 and up.

Facing the Music by Margaret Willey, is the most realistic of the trio, the story of another girl trying to find her way in the world after the death of her mother four years earlier. Her father disappears into his work, too, and her brother seems to resent her very existence, particularly when 15-year-old Lisa starts singing with his band. Wiley alternates between two voices, those of Lisa and her long-suffering older brother Mark, who finally finds his escape by deciding to move out of the house. This is a fairly literal story, almost documentary in tone, compared to the two others, but it might serve as a useful road map for any young woman who feels similarly isolated. For readers 12 and up.

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