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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

ERNESTINE & AMANDA. By Sandra Belton (Simon & Schuster: $16, 150 pp., ages 8-12) : WRESTLING STURBRIDGE. By Rich Wallace (Knopf: $16, 133 pp., ages 12-17) : MOON WINDOW. By Jane Louise Curry (McElderry Books: $16, 170 pp., ages 10-14)

September 15, 1996|KAREN STABINER

It must be hard to impress the 8- to 12-year-old set, when every time they go to the movies they find out that it's possible to blow up the White House, walk through steel bars, see real dinosaurs or meet friends from outer space. Since there is no competing with special effects, some novelists have taken the opposite path, with a vengeance--writing small coming-of-age novels that can pivot on the events of daily life.

They are almost a relief, after all the shouting and techno-hardware, and an important reminder that, to young readers, reality can shift rather dramatically on a daily basis.

Ernestine & Amanda, by Sandra Belton, is the story of a friendship between two skeptical girls: Ernestine, the musical prodigy who plays piano by ear and considers her lessons an irritating discipline, and Amanda, a more obedient soul who seems to think that being neat and well-behaved is the key to future security. They meet at piano lessons and assume immediately that they have nothing in common but, of course, appearances are deceiving.

The overweight, irrepressible Ernestine has a few things to teach her reluctant companion--who learns by the end that nothing is certain, not even her family. A sweet, thoughtful book with not a whole lot going on on the surface, but a smart adventure on emotional terrain. The two girls are funny and frank, their lives reassuringly familiar.

Wrestling Sturbridge, by Rich Wallace, is a more familiar story in this post-Rocky era, but this first-time author gives it a dignified, intelligent treatment. Benny is a wrestler with his eye on the state crown; he figures that will buy him a way out of his dead-end hometown, where his dad is a factory worker and optimism is in short supply. In the Hollywood version, of course, Benny would beat out the star wrestler, his friend Al. I won't say whether he does or doesn't in Wallace's novel. The important thing, here, is that the author tells a terrific story--subtle, funny, cleanly drawn. Benny; his pals; his girlfriend, Kim; and his family are all vivid characters and it is a pleasure to read about them. Even the little lead-in lists that open each chapter--"Guys I'm certain my mother has slept with / Guys I'm not sure about," or "Things my father told me never to do / Things he never mentioned"--are smart. Wallace knows instinctively how to stay away from cute and how to draw even those of us who are wrestling-ignorant into his story.

Author Jane Louise Curry uses a haunted house and a mystery in Moon Window to address a common crisis for preteens--how to handle a parent's decision to remarry. In this case, JoEllen Brigg's widowed mother leaves her daughter with an elderly cousin while she goes on her honeymoon. Granty lives in a house called Winterbloom, which looks like a Scottish castle, complete with windowed turret. Jo arrives determined to run away and force her mother's early return. Instead, she finds that the turret window leads to a different kind of escape, into the past. Written by a medieval scholar and prolific children's author--Curry has written more than 30 books for children--this will appeal to any child with a love of fantasy and legend.

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