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Realistic stories about tough subjects. For young people

WHEN I was growing up, I had a regular Saturday morning meeting with the children's librarian. She'd unlock the bottom drawer in her worn wooden desk and pull out the latest offerings from some of my favorite authors, piling them into my arms. The books were generally filled with wonderful settings, characters I wanted to emulate, and plots that revolved around trying to do well in school, finding a boyfriend, or solving a small mystery.

Few of them attempted to deal with serious issues in those days when drug and alcohol abuse and unhappy family situations were either thought to be inappropriate or not of interest to young readers.

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Times have certainly changed.

Today, topics that were rarely addressed 15 years ago have become the norm.

Gloria D. Miklowitz, for example, is the author of more than 35 books for young adults and has written about such challenging subjects as AIDS, suicide, and child abuse. In her latest book, The Emerson High Vigilantes (Delacorte, New York, $14.95, 184 pp., ages 12 and up), she explores the morality of vigilante activities.

Paul Ross, editor of his high school paper, becomes involved with a group of upper-class students who have formed a secret society to purge their school of ``bad guys'' - those who deal drugs or commit petty crimes.

At first, Paul is impressed by the leader's charisma and wealth, and intrigued by his beautiful and headstrong girlfriend. But as the group's violence gets out of hand, he begins to wonder not only who the ``bad guys'' are, but also what he should do about the situation.

Miklowitz is obviously familiar with young people's attitudes and desires. As in her previous books, she offers interesting and believable characters, but the class distinctions she draws between rich and poor, white students and minority students, perpetuate some unfortunate stereotypes.

Even so, readers will relate well to the author's use of contemporary phrases and realistic situations. This book ought to encourage them to think twice before taking the law into their own hands.

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In Moon in the Water (Atheneum, New York, $13.95, 234 pp., ages 12 and up), Lucy Diggs skillfully weaves a picture of a young boy's life against the golden background of the fields of central California in 1955. Diggs knows her subject matter - horses - thoroughly, and this knowledge, plus a smooth writing style, makes this a realistic and interesting story.

JoBob's family life leaves a lot to be desired. His abusive father is lazy and uneducated, constantly gambling the family's money away in cockfights, where he expects JoBob to help him swindle people. The dishonesty and cruelty of the fights sicken JoBob, so he stays away as much as he can.

It's at the stable where he rides, trains, and takes care of horses that he's most at home. When his boss gives him his favorite pinto, Blue, JoBob is overjoyed. He spends almost a year training Blue and competing in horse shows. Then tragedy strikes.

With the help of a young Japanese girl and his own beliefs, JoBob eventually overcomes the pain and learns about himself in the process. Diggs's gentle use of symbolism and her sensitive writing contribute to the calmness and strength of this book.

Say Goodnight, Gracie (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, 214 pp., ages 12 and up), by Julie Reece Deaves, is a memorable first novel that captures both the happiness of true friendship and the deep sadness that can accompany its loss.

Morgan and Jimmy, at 17, have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They've always done everything together, from going to dance auditions and acting workshops to Christmas shopping. Theirs is a wonderful, affectionate relationship that's untouched by competition or sexuality.

When it ends with Jimmy's unexpected death, Morgan must learn not only to be on her own, but also to transcend her grief and get on with her life. She has the help and support of loving parents and an unusually well-attuned aunt - a welcome change from the disjointed families so often portrayed in novels for young readers. The healing process is slow, but she finally emerges from her self-imposed chrysalis.

Deaves has a gift for natural conversation and for expressing the intimacy of a special relationship without sounding trite or overblown. She draws the characters, even the seemingly insignificant ones, with such a sensitive touch that one can't help feeling a part of their lives.

In No Strings Attached (Atheneum, New York, $12.95, 124 pp., ages 8 to 12), Kristi D. Holl, a former teacher, shows that she understands the doubts and pleasures of junior-high readers.

When June and her mother move in with Franklin, an elderly gentleman for whom her mom is housekeeper, June is initially excited. The year before, when Franklin had been in a retirement home, he had been June's ``foster grandfather.''

But she learns that visiting him occasionally is quite different from living with him in his house, where he always seems grouchy and moody. June finds herself alternately patient and upset with him, especially when he makes blunt and thoughtless remarks to her friends.

Beginning junior high school is hard enough, with its changes in demands and friendships. Now June's mom is advising her to just accept Franklin's behavior. It doesn't seem fair.

But when Christmas comes and a few sharp words are exchanged, June finally realizes that although it may seem a challenge, she and Franklin can learn to communicate and accept each other's differences.

Old and young learning to live together and appreciate each other is an important topic in today's changing society. Author Holl deals with it nicely in this quiet, meaningful book.

Heidi Bernadette Mack is on the Monitor's staff.

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