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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

THE NEW GIRLS. By Beth Gutcheon (HarperPerennial: $13, 347 pp.) : BUT WHAT ABOUT ME? By Marilyn Reynolds (Morning Glory Press: $15.95 hardcover, $8.95 paper, 188 pp.) : GIRL GIVES BIRTH TO OWN PROM DATE. By Todd Strasser (Simon & Schuster: $16, 204 pp.)

August 11, 1996|KAREN STABINER

It's a chicken-and-egg question: Do women buy more books than men because they grew up with better books to read than boys--or do girls get better books than boys because the female sex is inherently more interested in words? A friend with a 10-year-old son complains that there is little of value out there but that girls can choose from an array of titles.

The New Girls by Beth Gutcheon, is a republication of a 1979 novel, a second cousin to the classic boys' prep school story, "A Separate Peace" and younger sister to Mary McCarthy's college-and-beyond coming-of-age story, "The Group." A handful of girls come back to Miss Pratt's School, the private prep school they graduated from in 1963, for their 15-year reunion. In the grand tradition of this form, they are a varied lot: the beauteous Lisa, whose appearance is just so and whose life is not quite; rock star Jenny, fighting vocal cord polyps and an absence of creative spark; funky, animal-loving Muffin; writer Ann; and the much beloved but tragic Sally. It's not a particularly surprising tale--girls depart the protected environment of the private school and find themselves catapulted into a world defined by the Vietnam War, the women's movement and other forms of upheaval--but it is carefully and genuinely told. Gutcheon has a respect for the form.

But What About Me? by Marilyn Reynolds is subtitled "True-to-Life Series From Hamilton High," one in a series of novels that address issues that teenagers seem too young to have: a 15-year-old's pregnancy; a promising teenager's dilemma when his girlfriend gets pregnant and what the author calls "acquaintance rape." Erica is one of those teenagers who puts all her energy into helping her boyfriend Danny cope with his mother's recent death and his retreat into alcohol. When Danny gets kicked out of the house, he moves in with a bad sort, Alex, who in a drunken rage attacks and rapes Erica. It takes her a long time--and lots of pain--to get to the point where she can ask the question posed in the title, but Reynolds implies that with a strong heart and determined spirit, recovery is possible. A harsh, unadorned tale, hard to take but probably a worthwhile warning for a youngster headed down a similar path--if only she'll stop long enough to read it.

Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date by Todd Strasser sits at the other end of the spectrum from the Hamilton High book--sassy, irreverent, consumed by the question of how to turn grunge-meister Chase Hammond into a dream prom date when Nicole's preferred beau invites another girl. In snappy little chapters that betray the author's advertising background, Strasser manages to tell a deceptively glib story about popularity and acceptance, divorce and dysfunctional families and falling in love, both before and after marriage. Like the companion title, "How I Changed My Life," this story cuts back and forth between two narrators--in this case Nicole, who is determined to show up with a respectable date, and Chase, the unlikely object of her determined affections. As for their final, oh-so-modern dilemma, I can't wait for the sequel.

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