Young Adult Fiction

Some fine new books by writers with a track record of pleasing picky 12-to-15-year-olds:

Alice On Her Way, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Simon & Schuster, $15.95). Amazingly, the 17th book in this popular series -- 20th if you count the three prequels -- is as fresh and funny as the first, The Agony of Alice (1985). Pushing 16 now, the eponymous heroine and Silver Spring resident is frank about her ordinariness ("I'm a B student, average height and weight, an okay figure -- nothing great"). But, as always, Alice meets life's curve balls with not-so-ordinary zest. These include such sophomore-year rites of passage as a weekend school trip to New York (" . . . the people! All the people!"), sex ed, losing the nice but needy boyfriend, braces, encounters with alcohol and needing three tries to get her driver's license. The great merit of the Alice books, compared to, say, Judy Blume's YA novels, is that they are candid without being meretricious. Asked to maneuver her car out of a parallel parking space during her test, poor Alice is reminded of a friend's advice on using a tampon: "If you got it in, you can get it out." Realistic? Yes. Icky? A bit. Nasty? No. The key difference is Naylor's benevolent sense of humor.

Tiger, Tiger, by Lynne Reid Banks (Delacorte, $15.95). Banks has always been hard to pigeonhole (she wrote both the risque adult novel The L-Shaped Room and the children's fantasy classic The Indian in the Cupboard) but she's been consistent in her fondness for animals and exotic locales, setting YA novels in France, 14th-century Scotland and 1960s Israel and penning children's books from the viewpoints of a centipede and a hamster. She blends both interests in this high-drama tale of third-century Rome. Two tiger cub brothers are captured and taken to the imperial capital. One is trained to fight gladiators and Christians in the Colosseum; the other becomes the pampered pet of Caesar's beautiful daughter. Intricate plot twists bring all the main characters to the arena for a bloody showdown in which a tiger's nauseating brutality comes off as innocent compared to the savagery that was the empire ("The injustice of it! The cruelty of it!")

The Sledding Hill, by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow, $15.99). The irreverent Crutcher here puts his own wry spin on the done-to-death trend of deceased narrators. Fourteen-year-old Billy is killed by a pile of falling Sheetrock but doesn't let that stop him looking out for his pal Eddie, a clever but troubled boy who has been rendered mute by the deaths of his father and best friend (Dad got in the way of an exploding truck tire). Crutcher's real interest, though, is in a more pernicious kind of silencing: In mid-story, he pops up as a novelist plagued (as Crutcher famously is in real life) by censorship. The metaphor is perhaps overworked, and the Crutcher character's campaign to save his novel "Warren Peece" from being banned opens the door to some leaden diatribes. But there's no resisting Billy's whip-smart voice and exuberant take on the afterlife: "Man, I swoosh into a room and instantly know everything."

Not the End of the World, by Geraldine McCaughrean (HarperTempest, $16.99). "Tff. Tff. Single drops of rain raised little divots of dust, as though invisible feet were running over the dirt . . . . It had begun." "It" is Noah's flood, in a provocative take on the biblical calamity by one of the world's best re-tellers of classic stories (see McCaughrean's colloquial versions of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and Pilgrim's Progress.) In an inspired move, McCaughrean sidelines imperious Noah and entrusts the narrative to his family and the animals. It turns out that the Ark is brimming with mutiny, even blasphemy. Here's daughter Timna, on the day of the rainbow: "There are worse things . . . than being hunted through the Flood by amphibious angels or razored into shreds by sunbeams. How much worse would it be if the Flood was NOT God's doing, if it was just too big for Him to handle . . . ?"

Dread Locks, by Neal Shusterman (Dutton, $15.99). "Intrigued by the innate creepiness" of fairy tales, Shusterman says, he thought of adding an original twist by blending them with myths. Thus was born the Dark Fusion series, of which Dread Locks -- a hair-raising modern hybrid of the Gorgon legend and "Goldilocks" -- is the first title. Parker Baer, 14, is fascinated by his new next-door neighbor, a girl with long, blond, spiraling curls who always wears sunglasses. It's not hard to spot Tara as Medusa, nor is their much nuance to her hold on Parker: "She hugged me . . . . It felt horribly wrong. It felt totally right. I now lived at the extremes." But the play of allusions puts this book a notch above most teen thrillers -- and the ending is the stuff of nightmares. Next up in the series: Red Rider's Hood.

-- Elizabeth Ward