A HANDFUL of publishers are taking valiant strides this season toward making the Constitution more accessible to young readers. They left the starting blocks in February with several well-researched accounts of the drafting of the original document, and the last of the titles will roll across the finish line just in time for the September celebration of the bicentennial of the 1787 convention. First published by Little, Brown & Co. (Boston) in 1966, ``Miracle at Philadelphia'' (384 pages, $8.95 paperback or $18.95 hardcover, ages 12 and up) continues to be the acknowledged pace-setter in the nonfiction field. Author Catherine Drinker Bowen's day-by-day reports of the Constitutional Convention are as vigorous as the people and events she writes about, and the Boston publishing firm has recently reissued ``Miracle'' on its young-adult list. Good news for high school students facing history term papers. History and humor
Most of the new books about the Constitution cover roughly the same ground: politicking and compromises at the convention itself, the year-long ratification process and publication of the Federalist Papers, and the background of several significant amendments. Unfortunately, it's a subject that could easily become gray and boring, and several authors have fallen into this yawning chasm.
But not Doris and Harold Faber. The latest of their lively joint ventures, ``We The People, the Story of the United States Constitution Since 1787'' (Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y.,256 pages, $13.95, ages 12 and up) restores one's faith in the power of colorful detail and winning humor. Whether they're quoting an 18th-century wag's assessment of James Madison as no bigger than ``a half piece of soap,'' or recounting the cheerful introduction with which British suffragette Emmeline Parkhurst launched herself at American audiences (``I am what you call a hooligan''), the husband-and-wife authors provide an entertaining, smoothly written, and carefully documented account of the drafting of the Constitution and of its application to today's challenges. Junior- and senior-high schoolers will enjoy finding this one on their ``assigned reading'' list.
For the older elementary-school set, there's ``A Convention of Delegates,'' by Denis J. Hauptly (Atheneum, N.Y., 160 pages, $12.95, ages 8-12). While several other writers have also chosen to tell the story of the Constitutional Convention in terms of the famous men who gathered in Philadelphia, Hauptly takes great care in explaining the concepts that motivated these leaders. A good primer for its intended age group. One girl's self-worth
Finally, there are two important new novels. Although neither was written to address constitutional issues per se, they raise some thoughtful questions about freedom.
``Kim/Kimi,'' by Hadley Irwin (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Macmillan, N.Y., 208 pages, $12.95, ages 12 and up) has only a single reference to the Constitution. But because it's taken from a memorial at one of the infamous ``relocation camps'' where some 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without trial during World War II, it says a lot in a few pointed words: ``...These camps are reminders of how racism, economic and political exploitation, and expedience can undermine the constitutional guarantees of United States citizens and aliens alike. May the injustices and humiliation suffered here never recur.''
Readers will warm to Kim Andrews, the teen-ager of the title. She's a light-hearted girl who skips an occasional math class, drowns her fleeting irritations with the world in paperback romances, and hangs out with a girlfriend who drives a 1954 fuchsia Buick called the ``Pink Passion.''
But there's her alter ego, too - the other half of the title, the Kimi Yogushi whose Japanese-American father died before she was born, and who was later adopted by her mother's second husband. ``Kimi'' has begun to realize that she isn't being invited to school dances with the rest of her friends, and she's more and more bothered by ``the Pearl Harbor thing.'' Whenever movies of the Japanese attack are shown in history class, she tells her young brother, Davey, ``everyone looks at me as if World War II were my fault.'' With Davey's help, Kim sets out on a ``quest'' (straight out of a favorite ``Dungeons and Dragons'' game) to Sacramento, Calif., to find her father's family and ultimately to discover her own worth and individuality.
It's a journey hundreds of literary heroines have taken, and Kim proceeds with carefully planned steps - and with all the support she could possibly want from her family and friends. What distinguishes this story is its quiet, sure-handed telling. Author Hadley Irwin, who tackled child abuse in her last novel, gives us a relatively uncomplicated character who nevertheless has deep reservoirs of strength.
Learning about what her father's family had to endure gives her - and her readers - a new perspective on the freedom she's always taken for granted.
While Kim finds her own future in her family's past, another 16-year-old finds self-expression - and freedom of expression - in competitive sports. Freedoms denied
Erika Nordern, the unpretentious heroine of ``Bury the Dead,'' by Peter Carter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, N.Y., 384 pages, $14.95, ages 12 and up), is a high-jumper on the rise in her native East Germany. Like many East Berliners, she wonders what life is like on the other side of the antifascist barrier (the Berlin Wall), but she's too busy with her studies and gym exercises to spend time dreaming about it. After all, a win at the upcoming Berlin indoor championships could mean entrance to a prestigious sports school.
In the opening pages of this fast-paced thriller, Erika writes a memento in the falling snow to the grandfather she never knew, the Prussian colonel who died in the service of his country in World War II. By the end of the book, she's met a long-lost, sadistic uncle and uncovered his wartime activities - crimes against the state that will undoubtedly spell the end of her athletic and scholastic aspirations.
Although ``Bury the Dead'' doesn't have the kind of optimistic, upbeat ending that's traditionally identified with young-adult titles, it's not a dark or hopeless story. In fact, readers will find so much to like about Erika and her family that they may feel, on turning the last page, that good ultimately will triumph.
At the very least, they will have gained a keener appreciation for the kind of freedom that is openly guaranteed by some governments and grudgingly withheld by others.