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Tales of courage and love. Here's quality for children

FOR parents who have questions about the quality of books available to young readers today, there is good news. A new collection of essays written by teachers of children's literature rings with praise for a number of contemporary novels and picture books, as well as enduring classics. In Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert (The Shoe String Press, Hamden, Conn., 252 pp., cloth $27.50, paper $17.50), more than 20 professors of children's literature explore a wide range of topics, from the concepts of bravery presented in Arnold Lobel's ``Frog and Toad'' series, to the reasons why the book-buying public will never let Pinocchio go out of print. They look at the work of novelists Nina Bawden, Robert Cormier, Madeleine L'Engle, Katherine Paterson, Mildred Taylor, and others - and come up with seemingly endless examples of the ``triumph of the spirit'' in today's books for children. As Gloria Jameson, a professor of children's literature at California Polytechnic State University, puts it: ``We long to triumph in the spirit so that our lives have meaning. Stories that enable us to do this vicariously speak to our inner nature. They will continue to be read, and they will be remembered.''

Ms. Jameson is writing about the work of Cynthia Voight, whose ``Dicey's Song'' won the Newbery Medal for outstanding fiction in 1983. The Newbery is the Pulitzer Prize of children's books, and there are perhaps a dozen other prestigious awards given out annually by librarians, newspapers, and professional groups. But what about the remaining 3,000 children's books that are published each year and go largely unrecognized? How good are they?

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A few brief months of reading children's books again, after a lapse of 10 years, leads this reviewer to conclude that their quality is steadily improving. Individual titles may have their weaknesses, from flaws in character development, to contrived plotting, to uneven writing. But the overall impression is one of consistently good and well-intentioned work. Two new titles for readers aged 10 and up are examples of this.

Water Sky (Harper & Row, New York, 212 pp., $11.95) is the latest novel by Jean Craighead George, a fluid and articulate nature writer. Ms. George won the Newbery in 1973 for ``Julie of the Wolves,'' a multifaceted love story about a young Eskimo girl. In her new work she takes her readers back to Alaska for a first-rate survival tale.

Lincoln Noah Stonewright, a teen-ager from Massachusetts, makes the journey to Barrow to find his favorite uncle, Jack, a gung-ho environmentalist who'd set out two years earlier to convince the Eskimos not to hunt the bowhead whale. In the course of his stay at a whaling camp on the floating ``pan'' ice, Lincoln not only learns what the bowhead means to his new-found friends, but also falls in love with a courageous Eskimo girl who's trying to straddle the two cultures that surround her.

The Eskimos are convinced that Lincoln has come so that Nukik, the great white-tailed whale, will ``give itself'' to the hunters. ``Water Sky'' has more than its share of mystical trappings. Frosty ``sun dogs'' appear on the horizon, and incantations are sung to the spirits of the deep as the whalers paddle off in their canoe-like umiaks.

Novelist George strikes a needed balance, however, by giving her readers a rich bounty of facts about Eskimo culture and life in the Arctic, as well as environmental conservation. She also includes some timely drug-related issues and raises questions of social responsibility. Lincoln's own ``triumph of the spirit'' takes him through some harrowing moments on the unfamiliar ice, and requires a good deal of inner questioning about his role in his own society.

The result is a story that's strong on message - but perhaps too serious. The Eskimo dialogue, which at first has the clear ring of direct translation from the native Inupiat, begins to hang heavy and stilted after a few chapters. ``We whale no more, the paddles say,'' is a moving line, but one keeps hoping for a flip teen remark or an occasional chuckle. Given its social-conscience orientation, it's nevertheless a satisfying novel, one that has a lot to say about the beauty of nature and mankind's relationship with it.

Another new title with a conscious message is The Return, by Sonia Levitin (Atheneum, New York, 240 pp., $12.95). Drawing on her own experience as a Jewish child who escaped from Nazi Germany, author Levitin gives us a fictionalized account of a young Ethiopian girl who flees the religious persecution of her homeland and eventually makes her way to Israel.

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It's a story that's based on ``Operation Moses,'' the 1984-85 secret airlift of more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan to Israel, and it doesn't gloss over the suffering of those who waited for help in the refugee camps - and those who still wait. But for all its stark realism, ``The Return'' represents another believable triumph of the individual human spirit over great challenges.

Desta, the likable young heroine, dreams of skipping to school along the golden streets of Jerusalem, but she has only a vague concept of the trek that lies between her mountain village and the Promised Land. As it turns out, her older brother is killed by bandits en route to Sudan, and Desta and her younger sister have to make the tortuous journey on their own. They've always been devout Jews, but they soon begin to discover spiritual resources they'd never known before.

Levitin has a sure, rhythmic touch, and her characters' conversations come from the heart. They're also full of wit and fun - much needed here. What's more, the atmospheric setting that's painted in the opening pages - a small village high in the misty, blue-green mountains, where the smell of freshly ground coffee beans hangs in the air and the blacksmiths' bellows wheeze - has a haunting refrain in the closing pages, when Desta finally arrives at Jerusalem's Western Wall:

``Slowly I approached the wall. High are the stones, and worn with time, the color of ochre, the color of dull clay with a hidden haze of gold ... this wall I approached, my hands clasped, my eyes upon the stones. ... I had returned.''

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