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Tales to Relieve the School Blues

September 10, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You probably wouldn't have known it from the recent heat wave, but see those long faces on your kids? Sure signs that fall--and the school year--are upon us once again.

It's unlikely that many children will reenter the classroom as dramatically as Pippi Longstocking in "Pippi Goes to School," by Astrid Lindgren with pictures by Michael Chesworth (Viking Children's Books, 32 pages, $14.99).

Swedish author Lindgren introduced us to the irrepressible Pippi 50 years ago. In this story, aimed at ages 5 to 8, Pippi causes quite a clamor when she shows up (two hours late) on a horse for her first day of school. And that's just the beginning of a morning that Pippi's teacher and classmates won't soon forget.

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Jonah Truman's return to school is far more stressful. He can't find the nerve to ask Katherine Chang for a date, his best friend has talked him into joining the drama club and, as if all that weren't enough, everyone in the eighth grade knows that the principal is his new stepfather.

Jonah struggles with these problems, as well as the usual coming-of-age dilemmas, in Margaret Bechard's "My Mom Married the Principal" (Viking, 168 pages, $14.99). But when Jonah finds that the drama club is actually a cool place to meet girls, the novel (aimed at middle-school students) reaches a happy (if somewhat abrupt) conclusion.

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Still, Jonah's problems seem like nothing compared with the troubles Em Thurkill faces in Norma Fox Mazer's darkly serious "When She Was Good" (Scholastic, 208 pages, $15.99). This novel, for readers age 12 and older, is the story of a determined girl who survives 14 hellish years with her unfaithful father's alcoholic rages and her mother's deathly silence, only to be shipped off to live with her sister Pamela, who tortures her with three more years of physical and emotional violence.

Em's refusal to give in to the pain and bitterness and the courage she displays in surviving the ordeal make for a heartbreaking yet inspirational tale.

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Mark Pfetzer's "Within Reach: My Everest Story" (Dutton, 208 pages, $16.95) is equally inspiring, though for different reasons. For starters, Pfetzer's story is true, and the challenges he faced were all of his own making.

At 15, Pfetzer had become the youngest climber ever to attempt Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak. He gives readers an inside look at the physical and psychological preparation needed for something as dangerous as an assault on Everest, taking us with him through ice training, arduous daily workouts and numerous practice climbs.

Two years ago, Pfetzer headed up the mountain again, but a severe storm killed eight climbers in another expedition and forced him to turn back just short of the summit. His story, written with the help of veteran journalist Jack Galvin, is aimed at readers in fifth grade and above, though its length and its tiny, dark, hard-to-read typography might make the book a challenge almost comparable to Everest for some.

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It's the rare person who needs something like an assault on Everest to make his or her day complete. The rest of us usually find simpler tasks--such as getting the children to bed each night--sufficiently daunting. For us (and our kids), there's "10 Minutes Till Bedtime" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 48 pages, $16.99) by Caldecott Medal-winning author Peggy Rathmann.

The countdown to bedtime is just about to begin when a family of hamsters arrives at the front door. Dad doesn't notice, of course, just as he doesn't notice the carloads and busloads of vacationing hamsters that stream into the bedroom a few minutes later. If ever a child needed an excuse not to go to bed, it certainly would be hard to top a room full of vacationing hamsters. But that's not the way this warmly illustrated book for young readers ends.

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This month's final entry, "The Amazing Multiplication Book" by Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels (Dutton's Children's Books, 12 pages, $19.99), comes with a special recommendation. The heavy-duty cardboard book employs dozens of colorful flaps, fold-outs and pull strips to teach the multiplication tables from 1 to 12. After dismissing them all as far too busy and complicated to hold most children's interests, I laid the book aside, only to watch my 4-year-old son, Marcos, pick it up and grow mesmerized by the way the math problems unfolded from page to page.

"I like numbers, and it's funny," he giggled as we read the book for the 10th time that night. You can bet I'll be consulting him more regularly in the future.

* Kevin Baxter reviews books for young readers every four weeks. Next week: reviews by Times readers.

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