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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

SEES BEHIND TREES. By Michael Dorris (Hyperion Books for Children: $14.95, 96 pp.) : RIOT. By Mary Casanova (Hyperion Books for Children: $13.95, 124 pp.) : THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY. By E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum: $16, 163 pp.)

November 24, 1996|KAREN STABINER

The word "empowerment" is the kiwi fruit of vocabulary: Overused until we can't appreciate it anymore, even in the appropriate literary dish. And yet empowerment is what much of children's fiction is all about, particularly for the 8-to-12-year-old age group. If an author can serve up the notion of an independent, manageable future with subtlety and grace, the turmoil of being not-quite-grown becomes a bit more tolerable.

Michael Dorris does a hypnotic job in the seductive Sees Behind Trees, the story of a young Native American boy named Walnut, who is severely nearsighted. Luckily, he is surrounded by a family of unusually perceptive adults--who, when his bow-and-arrow skills refuse to respond to endless training sessions, simply switch to working on a skill he can enhance. Walnut's hearing is as sophisticated as his sight is lacking; he gains his adult name, Sees Behind Trees, after a wonderful contest in which he beats the other boys--the ones who are good with a bow--at finding things with their eyes closed. Dorris provides magical descriptions of the boy's skill and then gives him a real-life challenge, where he has to prove that his character matches the strength of his dominant physical sense.

There is a wonderfully surreal tone to some of Dorris' prose, as though the story were part dream. No one in this culture ever steps forward to pass judgment on Walnut's eyesight; instead, we figure out what is wrong from the boy's own descriptions of how the forest looks or how he determines that his uncle has just appeared. It's a gentle, powerful story about accepting limitations and turning in another direction to build strength.

Riot, by Mary Casanova, is as doctrinaire as Dorris' book is dreamy, almost harsh in her depiction of what a union dispute does to the citizens of a small town. Based on a 1989 incident in International Falls, Minn., "Riot" tells the story of one family torn apart when nonunion laborers are hired for a plum contracting project--Bryan, the sixth-grader; his twin siblings; his mother, who the previous year had participated in a teachers' strike for better pay; and his father, a rabidly angry pro-union man who is pushed over the edge when his union is passed over for the job. To add to the tension, Casanova adds a dollop of Romeo and Juliet: Young Bryan falls for Chelsie, the daughter of a "rat," the name given to the nonunion workers.

It is a tough, unsparing look at an issue, a bit dogmatic at times but a refreshing alternative to endless, often smart-alecky books about more superficial issues. The greatest problem, in fact, is that Casanova seems to quit too soon. When Bryan's father participates in a violent demonstration and Bryan captures the event on his video camera, the author poses a fascinating dilemma--and then wraps it up far too quickly to be credible. The tone and fury of this book may have been difficult to maintain, but the reader can't help wishing that the author had worked her way more thoroughly through the complex issues she raised.

The View From Saturday is about intellectual empowerment, a nice notion in an era when people spend hours debating the fine points of the V-chip (as though the only thing that mattered to the American family was being able to deposit the kids in front of the television set). E. L. Konigsburg's story centers on the Souls, four sixth-graders who have been pals forever and who participate in the Academic Bowl junior high school state finals.

But of course, wisdom means more than knowing the answers on a test, as Julian, Noah, Nadia, Ethan and their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, find out. With the help of Julian's father the children--all of them impossibly mature for their years to begin with--and Mrs. Olinski figure out how to make the best of their imperfect lives. Konigsburg manages to be knowing without descending into smugness, funny but not foolish, and respectful of subject and reader.

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