I Was a Teen-Age Princess

AT A TIME when American parents are agonizing about how to help their children deal with the realities of modern life; when the Challenger disaster and fear of nuclear war have provoked such interest in youthful anxiety, a new crop of novels offers young readers a choice between escape from the anxieties, and very real, personal accounts of problems more immediate to children.

For younger readers, the popular Ellen Conford's A Royal Pain (Scholastic, $11.95; ages 10-up) is a wonderful respite from the harsh realities of growing up in the '80s. Though boys may be put off by the cover, which shows a girl in a ball gown, crown and running shoes, this story of Abby Adams will delight readers of both sexes.

The thoroughly American Abby was born prematurely as her parents visited the Gloxinia Festival in the small benighted kingdom of Saxony Coburn. ("They never planned to visit Saxony Coburn -- they'd never heard of Saxony Coburn -- but the travel agent threw it in for free, so they figured, Why not?") Weeks before her 16th birthday -- and during finals yet, emissaries arrive to deliver the shocking news that she and Princess Florinda -- heiress to the throne of Saxony Coburn -- and born on the same day as the hapless Abby, were switched at birth. Abby must return to her "homeland" at once and assume her royal duties!

Yes, there are hints of The Mouse That Roared and The Prince and the Pauper and yes, the whole story is ridiculously implausible, and no, this tiny country doesn't even have cable TV, as Abby quickly notes, but her account of her adventures as a princess are so hilarious that the reader never quarrels with what is possible and what is not. In fact, most of the time the reader is too busy laughing to care very much about anything. After all, how many girls get to dance with the Count of Monte Cristo?

"That was too much. 'Wait a minute. You don't expect me to believe that? The Count of Monte Cristo is a book. He's a fictional character.'

"'Ah, non, ma petite,' says her new mother, 'That was the other one.'" Strange Vacations

WHILE ABBY is dancing with counts and trying to get herself back to Kansas (of course), Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpes, in Bagthorpes Haunted (Macmillan, $11.95; ages 10-14) are in Wales looking for ghosts. In the sixth volume of the Bagthorpe adventures, this nutty family has been carried off to a cabin in a small Welsh village by Father Bagthorpe, who wants to live in a haunted house so he can write a TV show about spirits. Only the ghosts refuse to appear. Also missing are hot water, electricity and a telephone. Even Mrs. Bagthorpe's Positive Thinking is sorely tried by these primitive conditions, and the appearance of Cousin Daisy, the 5-year-old firebug with parents ditsier than even Bagthorpes can tolerate, does nothing to improve the situation.

Before the family gives up and returns to England, they've been visited by a flock of sheep, a truckload of junk mistakenly bid upon at auction, and a double dose of hired ghosties trucked in to justify their escape from Wales. No matter how much it rains on vacation, the reader who's travelled with the Bagthorpes will never complain again.

Also on vacation are Caroline and J.P. Tate, the warring brother and sister in Lois Lowry's Switcharound (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95; ages 9-14). But they're up against obstacles of a different sort.

Children of divorce, they haven't seen their father in years. Now he summons them from New York to Des Moines for the whole summer, and there's nothing they can do about it. It seems the court order had given him summer custody all along, but he never sought it, so no one told the kids. Now J.P. the computer maven and Caroline the budding paleontologist, must make the best of summer in the midwest with Papa Herbie Tate the sporting goods dealer, his wife Lillian, 6-year-old Poochie and the baby twins.

Clearly this is not the life they're used to:

"This house was one she had never seen. But it had an odd, familiar look to it.

"She poked her brother. 'Leave it to Beaver?' she murmured.

"J.P. stared at the house. 'My Three Sons?' he responded.

"'Father Knows Best? The Donna Reed Show?' Caroline suggested.

"'All of the above,' J.P. announced as he picked up his small suitcase from the floor of the car."

But though the neighborhood may look like the scene of a sitcom, there's trouble in paradise. Herbie's business is struggling, and he wants Caroline to babysit while Lillian studies Real Estate, and J.P. to coach the sports store's Little League team to garner the good will of the town.

Since both kids would rather be computing and paleontologizing, these assignments are met with little enthusiasm and fantasies of revenge. But the skillful Lowry offers the reader a fantasy of her own, instead. For it is J.P.'s computer skills that save the business, and convince Mr. Tate that his children are valuable for the talents they have brought with them, not those he's been trying to pull out of them in three short months.

Many kids must face summers with a stranger called Dad these days, and though most won't find such a concrete way to become a family hero, Switcharound still offers a lesson in tolerance -- of far away parents, step-sibling and step-parents, and, for moms and dads, of kids who may be growing up different from the fantasy children those far away parents may wish for. Serious Matters

A MORE SERIOUS lesson in tolerance, for older readers, comes from Nancy Garden's Peace, O River (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12.95; ages 10-up) a story of a river town faced with class tensions, and the young woman who tries to bring the community together. Kate Kincaid left River View a child, and after four years in the city, her family has moved back to town in time for her to finish high school with her old friends. But the high school, like so many in this country, joins two school districts, wealthy River View, where Kate lives, and less fortunate Hastings Bay, across the River and a million miles away economically. This story of envy and infighting will be familiar to many teenagers in big joint-district high schools, but in this novel, problems at school have been exacerbated by debate over where to locate an experimental nuclear waste plant. Both warring towns are candidates, and the residents of Hastings Bay fear that their lack of economic clout means that they will be the "lucky" ones, stuck with a time bomb in their back yards.

As Kate and her best friends Jon and Pippa struggle to bring peace to their school and end the fighting, crews of bullies on both sides of the river pull them two steps backward for every advance they make. Only tragedy brings the kids, and their parents, to a resolution of their feud.

Though realistic and warmly written, Peace, O River is pretty grim. And the author's anti-nuclear stance, and decision to include intimations of homosexuality on the part of one of the book's main characters, muddy the water somewhat. Even so, any school librarian or social studies teacher dealing with a dual-economy student body could make good use of the story to provoke discussion and perhaps to ease tensions in the school environment. A valuable teaching tool, it might be too sad for the solitary reader to enjoy.

Also helpful, almost therapeutic, is The Keeper (Atheneum, $13.95; ages 10-up), Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's portrait of a boy's struggle to help his schizophrenic father get help. Nick Karpinsky had always known his father was a little different and aloof, changing jobs and hometowns every few years, but now it's different. Just as Nick has made a circle of friends in the latest Karpinsky hometown, Nick's father quits working. Gradually Nick and his mother learn that Mr. Karpinsky thinks the Communists are after him, that an enormous conspiracy has formed against him. The Keeper carries the family from denial of the problem to efforts to get help, and teaches not only how painful mental illness is to live with, but also how complicated laws prevent interference even when the need is obvious.

Before the story ends, Nick must "betray" his father in order to help him. He must choose between bad and worse, and the story's resolution is one of relief, not happiness. Nonetheless, The Keeper is a valuable book for kids who may be living with a mentally ill loved one, or for teens who need to understand the circumstance under which a friend lives. Heartbreak Hotel

MORE UNIVERSAL, but almost as painful, is Three Sisters (Scholastic, $12.95; ages 12-up), the newest novel of the popular young adult author Norma Fox Mazer. It is the story of Karen, youngest of the three Freed sisters, and the most insecure. In awe of poetic, talented big sister Liz, and of fierce and determined middle sister Tobi, 15-year-old Karen is struggling to find a place for herself in her gifted and volatile family.

Ditched by her boyfriend Davey because she won't sleep with him, Karen falls in love with Liz's fiance. Though Karen's circumstances are reminiscent of Carson McCullers' heart-breaking Member of the Wedding, her actions are far less sympathetic, and the consequences more destructive. Teen-age crushes have always been with us, and the intensity of which Karen has been accused all her life may account for her behavior, but her pain and her actions do not invite admiration, and the story's resolution is not helpful to a young person suffering the same sorts of agonies. Again, this book would be a valuable discussion tool, but a sad and lonely book for the solitary reader.

In the turbulent '80s, as we contend with thousands of teen suicide attempts each year, it would seem that books like those offered by Mazer, Garden, and Naylor would be valuable indeed for those teachers and guidance counselors with the gift for evoking class discussion. But though the happier books discussed here are meant for younger readers, teen readers would also be well served by some reality-based novels with reasonable resolutions and a little bit of laughter. For many teen-agers, laughs are tough enough to come by.

Cynthia Samuels is the political producer of NBC's Today show.