Bucking the Sarge, by Christopher Paul Curtis (Wendy Lamb, $15.95; ages 12-up). Curtis's first two novels were set in the past: the Newbery Medal-winning Bud, Not Buddy during the Depression and The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 in the civil rights era. Bucking the Sarge, his first YA book, unfolds in contemporary Flint, Mich., Curtis's hometown, and has an older, altogether more worldly-wise protagonist in 15-year-old Luther T. Farrell. But it has the same smarts, humor and feel for place and period that made the earlier books standouts. Luther is a young black man who is, by his own account, "a lot more maturer than everybody else" and has definite places to go -- once he can shake off Flint, that is, where he helps his momma, "the Sarge," run her "evil empire" of slum housing, group homes and loan sharking. Luther's plan is grand: "When I go off to university I'ma dedicate my life to studying philosophy," he announces. "I plan on being America's best-known, best-loved, best-paid philosopher." By the end of this riotous book, our man is well on his way. Curtis once said, "Writers have to have really good ears and really good eyes." He has both. He also said, "Keep it fun." He surely does. Bucking the Sarge is the kind of jewel that results.

Finding Miracles, by Julia Alvarez (Knopf, $17.99; ages 12-up). Alvarez, who was raised in the Dominican Republic before moving to New York City at age 10, had one of the best YA novels of 2002 with Before We Were Free, a tart, child's-eye view of the brutal Trujillo dictatorship. This patchier effort is set in Vermont, where the narrator, an apparently ordinary American teenager called Milly Kaufman, finds herself discombobulated by the arrival of a student from Central America, "Pablo something something something -- he must have had about four names." As it happens, Milly, formerly Milagros, or "Miracles," was adopted from Pablo's country as a baby, a fact she hates to dwell on. That changes when Milly travels back to this country, presumably the Dominican Republic, with Pablo and finds both herself (hence the sentimental title) and romance. Milly starts out a spirited girl but unfortunately loses her edge under the combined weight of Pablo's perfection and the author's rosy views on cross-cultural adoption and "the human family."

Picture Books

Pilgrim Cat, by Carol Antoinette Peacock, illustrated by Doris Ettlinger (Albert Whitman, $16.95; ages 4-8). Inspired by a visit to Plimoth Plantation, Mass., Peacock has penned a gentle, original tale of the First Thanksgiving from the perspective of a young girl and the cat she adopted on the Mayflower. The characters are imaginary, but Peacock cites research confirming that the Pilgrims included 11 girls, from babies to teenagers. Her evident respect for historical sources makes up for the somewhat bland prose, while Pounce the cat steals the limelight in Ettlinger's warm-hearted illustrations.

A Confused Hanukkah: An Original Story of Chelm, by Jon Koons, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Dutton, $16.99; ages 4-8). In this amusing addition to the body of folktales about the legendary buffoons of Chelm, panic sets in when, in the rabbi's absence, the villagers realize they can't remember how to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. So they send an emissary to the next village for tips and reminders -- a fine idea, except that the next village happens to observe Christmas. Schindler's illustrations capture all the battiness of the hybrid festivities that ensue before the rabbi returns to set things straight.

The Angel and the Christmas Rabbit, and 24 Advent Stories, selected by Brigitte Weninger, translated from the German by Charise Myngheer and Harold D. Morgan (Minedition, $18.99; ages 4-up). An anthology of short stories, one for each day of Advent (Dec. 1-24), makes a nice alternative, or accompaniment, to chocolate-filled Advent calendars. The book is a kind of cozy, Christmassy version of The Arabian Nights. A little angel, sent to Earth to find the best Christmas present ever, is stumped until he meets an old rabbit. The two have a spirited, indeed quite philosophical, exchange about the angel's task, illustrating their thoughts on the authentic spirit of Christmas with two dozen tales, including a retelling of Tolstoy's "Martin the Shoemaker." Lo! storytelling itself turns out to be the elusive ideal gift. Fourteen distinguished European artists contribute charming pictures. *

-- Elizabeth Ward