Books offer girl readers out-of-way material

Sunday, September 19, 2004

With all their differences, these three novels for girls at slightly different age levels are all equally irresistible.

Eve Bunting, prolific writer of both picture and young adults books, scores a hit with her "The Presence: A Ghost Story" ($15, Clarion Books), which literally haunts the reader with its romance between a 17-year-old ghost and a troubled young woman who seems doomed to relive a tragedy she barely survived. As much a psychological drama as a supernatural one, it will pull in teenage girls without scaring them to death.

It is a story to be taken seriously, though, for the ghost is real and its actions are not intangible. They do have consequences. That is one of the most unusual facets of the book: Visions and tragedies do happen and are not explained away as figments of the main character's imagination. On the other hand, this is not Stephen King; there is a positive and redeeming ending, which balances out the traumas that occur. All in all, this is a story that young people easily will be drawn into and that parents need not be afraid to let them read.

Half fantasy, half historical fiction, "The House on Hound Hill" ($6.95 paperback, Houghton Mifflin Company) by British author Maggie Prince, offers a time trip back into 17th-century London during the plague known as the Black Death. Mid-teens will find this a mesmerizing reliving of the period that killed almost a quarter of London's population.

The heroine, a modern British girl, finds herself intermittently transported physically and mentally into that situation, eventually coming to understand its horrific impact and realizing her good fortune at living in a time when antibiotics prevail and black rats no longer roam the streets at will. There are stark moments here but also much that is rewarding and redemptive.

On a much lighter note, "Blow Out the Moon" ($16.95, Little, Brown and Company) by Libby Koponen is also set in London, but a very different London. Described by the publisher as a coming-of-age story, it deals with a preteen American girl's experiences at a British boarding school, which most readers will undoubtedly find strange and unusual, but riveting.

Many of the girl's adventures (learning to ride a horse "English style," eating with a knife and fork properly, and staging a midnight feast of "lemon squash" and bread and butter) read like every kid's fantasy. But it's not quite all fun. Early on, she has to deal with cliques, and one periodic problem won't go away: She can't bring herself to sing "God Save the Queen." But finally that gets played for laughs, and the whole thing ends on a not-surprisingly joyous note.

All of these books offer girls out-of-the way fare. In a world that sometimes seems ordinary, that's definitely a plus that will pay dividends for each reader.