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The secrets, the adventures of childhood camaraderie

IN our own growing-up days, whether we gravitated toward adventures or mysteries, fanciful horse stories or more factual tales of how castles were constructed, the books we chose from the library shelves no doubt shared one element: the camaraderie of childhood. There's nothing quite so satisfying to a young reader as delving into a story about good friends who whisper secrets back and forth in a tree house and then set out to explore exotic territory together. Today, when so many children and adolescents are facing difficult challenges on their own, the need for the reassurance that comes from reading about such friendships is perhaps greater than ever. But are current novels for youngsters responding to that yearning? More and more they are, says one influential and caring voice. Betsy Hearne is editor of the Bulletin of the Children's Book Center at the University of Chicago; the Bulletin is a highly regarded journal that reviews some 75 new books for children each month. She's a former librarian and storyteller-turned-college professor and critic, who for 12 years was editor of children's reviews in the American Library Association's bimonthly Booklist. In addition to writing the best-selling ``Choosing Books for Children: A Commonsense Guide'' (Delacorte, New York), she's also the author of three books for children - and the mother of four.

``Today, with children being more and more institutionalized - placed in day care and after-school care - there's less family and neighborly comradeship,'' Dr. Hearne told the Monitor in a recent telephone interview. ``Unfortunately, the relationships formed in day-care settings tend to be much more fleeting than deeper-rooted family or neighborhood relationships. After all, you don't go to bed at night surrounded by your day-care friends, and you don't get the same emotional sustenance from your day-care friends as you do from your family and neighbors. And that sustenance is something that children desperately need.''

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While many protagonists in children's literature today still live ``in isolation,'' as Hearne puts it, there also are some welcome exceptions.

Her latest book, Eli's Ghost (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Macmillan, New York, $12.95, 112 pages, ages 8-12), due out in March, is a good example of this encouraging development. Hearne's Eli is a sensible young lad who lives in the deep-South town of Wilsonville, a tight-knit community where folks know so much about each other's doings that newspapers are unnecessary. After years of living with his tyrannical father, Eli happens upon a family picture one day and sees his mother's face for the first time. Eli drags from his father the story of how she ``ran off'' to the swamp to become, in his words, ``a witch.'' In a matter of days Eli also decides to head into the swamp, where he hopes to find his mother. While that's the bare-bones plot of Hearne's tale, the substance of the relationships it explores goes much deeper.

Driven from her home by a husband who kicked animals and didn't have much use for people, Eli's mother is an innocent who has watched her son grow up from her hiding place among the cypress trees. When they finally meet, she shares a tenderness that's tested and poignant, one that has survived the long years of separation. Eli also has two best pals, loner Tater Sims and devilish Lily Tilman, who track him into the swamp and who, one suspects, would follow him anywhere. ``They are friends that came from my own yearning - the kinds of friends I would have wanted,'' Hearne says of Tater and Lily. ``I was literally isolated as a child and lived in the middle of a pine woods. When the character of Eli grew in my mind, as the story percolated over a period of seven years, he grew friends right along with him.''

On top of these exemplary characters comes a batch of others who add to the great fun of the story - several mischievous ghosts; Eli's dog, Sandy Old Boy; the fly-swatting Sheriff Stone; and a pack of slightly mangy hunting dogs. Nice touches for a cleanly written, irreverent, good old-fashioned ghost story - and then some.

Childhood camaraderie and humor are elements that shine through two other new titles. Both are suspenseful mysteries that ought to make good reading in these seemingly endless winter days.

A Murder for Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $13.95, 241 pages, ages 12 and up) takes us to a spooky British countryside of the 16th century. When her father is murdered, 11-year-old Alice Tuckfield finds refuge in the York Minster Boys' Choir - disguised, to her surprise and joy, as a boy. What starts out as something of a lark ends in Alice's discovery of her father's killers, as they lurk in shadowy cathedral halls and scary attic hideaways. Although the writing is a bit uneven, with too many ``cloaked figure[s] following stealthily,'' the author's considerable strength lies in her storytelling. Young readers will not only enjoy Alice's accomplices in the choir and the well-crafted plot that carries them along, but should also pick up some slyly concealed messages about the joys of learning and the dangers of ``mad ambition.'' Not to mention all the pointers they'll get on Elizabethan pranks.

Finally, there's Odin's Eye, by Marguerite Murray (Atheneum, New York, $12.95, 176 pages, ages 10-14). Although the oddly stylized cover art makes for an unfortunate beginning, this is book whose author carries her readers with inventive storytelling and eccentric characters, rather than fluid writing. Sent off to spend the summer on the New England coast with one of her mother's old friends, 15-year-old Cicely Barrows hardly expects to pass her days playing detective. But she and a local cohort in crime-solving, Geoff Weygand, end up in the middle of a spy caper that would tantalize Nancy Drew. There's an awkward mixture of dated dialogue and trendy feminist pronouncements (``I have always noticed that if a male has only the faintest idea planted in his mind, he is doomed to follow it''), and the climax virtually disintegrates in the final 10 pages. But for well-plotted suspense, this is still a good choice. -30-{et

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