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Four novels that deal in danger

At first glance, four recent novels for young teens look a lot alike. All have contemporary settings, exciting scenarios, international connections, and young protagonists. Moreover, all four are about danger: danger of nuclear annihilation, of terrorism, of family secrets, of knowledge itself. But beneath these surface similarities lie marked differences. The quality of writing varies in the four books, as does the genre -- there's a thriller, a fantasy, and two mysteries. And, in each book, meanings and implications differ.

In Susan Lowry Rardin's Captives in a Foreign Land (Houghton Mifflin, 1984, $12.95, 218 pages, ages 10-14), Tawbah, a Pan-Islamic terrorist group, adbucts six American children on a bus tour of Rome. The children of delegates to a nuclear disarmament conference, they are taken to a remote, undisclosed location, probably somewhere in North Africa. Tawbah demands unilateral American nuclear disarmament, and the children are held hostage for two months while negotiations for their release go nowhere. One girl becomes ill, and her hospitalization sets in motion the Entebbe-like rescue that brings the children home.

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Rardin's description of the captivity is at once harrowing and heartening. Faced with arbitrary violence, isolation, poor conditions, and uncertainty, the children adapt and persevere. Rardin's thriller is the gripping stuff behind the headlines, but beneath its timeliness, the book is problematic, even troubling.

For starters, Rardin's pairing of captor and cause seems like a mixed metaphor -- not inconceivable, but unlikely and misleading. But more disturbing is the conversion of Matt, the senator's son. Upon release, he accepts the document written by the children under coercion, the document demanding unilateral American disarmament. He might well equate the plight of a boy kept captive at gunpoint with that of a world held hostage by the ``button'' and return a more impassioned advocate of Nuclear Freeze. His adoption of the untenable Tawbah demand represents an unhealthy identification with his captors. Echoes of the Patty Hearst case. ``I learned to think for myself out there,'' Matt claims. The reader wonders, did he?

In Jane Langton's Fragile Flag (Harper & Row, 1984, $11.95, 275 pages, ages 10-12), nine-year-old Georgie Hall does think for herself. To deflect attention from deployment of his unpopular Peace Missile, President Toby calls on American children to write him about ``What the Flag of My Country Means to Me.'' After envisioning a horrific nuclear Armageddon in the stars and stripes of her Uncle Freddy's frayed flag, Georgie knows what to say: ``The flag means the American people being friends with all the other people. . . .'' Carrying the old flag at the end of a mop pole, Georgie walks 450 miles to hand-deliver her letter. By the time she reaches Washington, she is leading a children's crusade 16,000-strong.

There are a few credibility problems here. That parents would allow children to go on an unplanned, unprotected trek is just unbelievable. So is the cheerful participation of 14-month-old Carrington Updike. But then, this is a fantasy of sorts. There are a few happy coincidences as well. How convenient that the President's grandson is among the marchers and that Georgie's family lives in Concord, Mass. The march is born in the cradle of the American Revolution, in the heart of Thoreau country, and thus Georgie is inexorably linked with a brave tradition.

Like Maine's Samantha Smith before her, Georgie determines to make a difference with a letter. Langton creates a powerful image -- the small, determined girl; the fragile, enduring flag; the innocent, idealistic plea. This image says something about a child's America in 1984, about a child's fears and faith.

In both Isabelle Holland's The Island (Little, Brown, 1984, $10.95, 182 pages, ages 12-14) and Vivien Alcock's The Sylvia Game (Delacorte, 1984, $14.95, 186 pages, ages 10-12), wealth and position conceal greed and deception. In Holland's mystery, 16-year-old Hilda Tashoff is hastily packed off to a Caribbean island for a vacation. Warmth, water, wealth -- what could be wrong? In this story, there's a lot wrong. Hilda's Uncle Brace owns the island and rules it ruthlessly, and her Aunt Louise is mysteriouly ill. Head housekeeper Williams is a ringer for sinister Mrs. Danvers. There's no phone, no mail, nor easy transportation off the island.The whole scene is malevolent and claustrophobic. Only Mr. Gomez curries Hilda's favor, but then who is this South American guest with a German accent? Hilda feels the danger build and determines to escape.

That Hilda's parents would send her off to confront an unknown past is quite unlikely. But then, this comes off like a made-for-television drama. There's something for everyone -- sadism and drug addiction, concealed identities and painful revelations, and even a touch of romance. But the story lacks the sensitivity and sophistication of Holland's earlier work.

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Beyond such melodrama is The Sylvia Game. Twelve-year-old Emily Dodd resents her father's devotion to his art; paintings just don't pay the bills. When he unexpectedly takes her on a seaside vacation, she suspects his motives. She secretly tails him to Mallerton House, where she happens to meet the lord's son Oliver. He calls her ``Sylvia,'' explaining that she bears an uncanny resemblance to a long-dead Mallerton ancestor whose portrait burned in a recent fire. Oliver draws Emily into his eerie ``Sylvia Game,'' and before long, two portraits of Sylvia surface -- one the Renoir original and one, a copy. Emily suspects her father of forgery, and fearfully she peels off layers of secrets to get at the truth.

The strength of Alcock's novel lies not only in the comfortable suspense of a British mystery, in the surprising twists and turns of plot; Alcock has also paid careful attention to relationships. The children's friendship and the family portraits cut across class lines and reveal a lot about social position. Only a shocking confession allows Oliver to free himself from his father's expectations. As for Emily, she finally sees that money cannot buy the self-respect and integrity her father so values. In the end, each child has developed a stronger sense of self and a fresh view of the future, and the reader feels satisfied and well entertained.

Susan Faust is a librarian at the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco. She is on leave from the San Francisco Public Library.

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