Like any 12-year-old girl, Charelle Smith of Accokeek could understand why Katie Roberts wore lipstick to school against her mom's wishes.

"She wanted to wear the lipstick to fit in," said Charelle, who was discussing the title character in the children's book "The Great Green Notebook of Katie Roberts: Who Just Turned 12 on Monday." "From my point of view, this may seem bad, but I would have done the same thing."

Charelle may not tell her mother that, but sitting among a dozen peers in Oxon Hill Library, her thoughts--any kind of personal perspective--are encouraged.

Charelle and 11 other youngsters in Prince George's County were part of Children Raving About Books, a free monthly reading circle better known as CRABs. A new CRABs group will begin in the fall.

Current and past CRABs leaders and members said the 32-year-old group has survived longer than any other similar library-sponsored body because the guiding principle is never to make it resemble a classroom.

The next session, meant for children ages 9 to 12, starts Oct. 19 and runs every third Tuesday of the month until May.

CRABs adviser Marsha Quarles, a children's librarian at Oxon Hill, suggests six books every month for the children to read; there's no pressure to read more than the child wants. From there, discussion topics shift from plot development to ethical discussions to some good-natured admonitions if the children did not read a story because of a less-than-captivating cover.

"What is the one thing you never do?" said Quarles, 36, at a recent discussion session. "You never judge a book by its cover."

To which Tristiana Hinton, 10, of Fort Washington, responded eagerly: "I always read the back."

Despite such precocious remarks, the talk can become serious. The children said their best discussion came from the book "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," about a black family in the south in the 1930s.

"It took on such a deep discussion because the family was [living] when prejudice was uprising," said JaNiece Ford, 12, of Temple Hills.

The children compared their lives with those of the book's characters.

"Nowadays we get into arguments, but we do not fight over prejudice," Charelle said.

"Black versus white fight, and it's no big deal," JaNiece said about her school. "It happens every day. Back then, it was a hanging offense."

Once Quarles knows which books she wants to use each month, she asks the other county library branches to ship over as many copies as they can. That is a telling fact, if only because before Quarles took over in 1997, CRABs had dwindled to a few students.

So she decided not only to put up fliers and banners but also to approach children in the library about it. Forty-four children showed up last fall, but within a few months, the program became a manageable 15, an ideal size for her. If more than 20 enroll in October, Quarles says she will form a second group.

Another monthly group, Teen Speak Out, began last year to get students ages 13 to 18 to read and talk about issues affecting their lives. Of the current CRABs, those old enough to attend Teen Speak Out said they would; the remaining students will stay in CRABs. Faye Powell, the head of the young adult department at Oxon Hill, leads Teen Speak Out.

As she works to strengthen the size of CRABs, Quarles also reinstated the CRABbery Award. Given out since 1979 and named for the prestigious Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, the CRABbery is based on which book the children liked best among all they read. They ask the author to send an autographed copy and visit the class.

The award had not been not given out since 1993, largely because only a few children attended, said Denise Pritchard, who oversaw CRABs from 1990 to 1997 and has since started a similar book-discussion program at Bowie Library.

The CRABbery winner this year is Amy Hest, who wrote "Katie Roberts"; a runner-up is "Regarding the Fountain: A Tale in Letters, of Liars and Leaks" by Kate Klise.

"When they started talking about it, they were so excited about it," Quarles said of Hest's book. "They could really understand what Katie was going through."

That sort of relationship to books and to others who feel similarly connected to literature prompted Birdie Law, now a retired children's librarian, to start CRABs in 1967.

"When I was a child, I was a reader, and no one else was, and I had no one to discuss books with," said Law, 75, of Suitland.

Law proposed the idea after being invited to a school to discuss books. She had such a good time, she thought the library system could offer an ongoing book group for children.

For a name, Law first chose Children Reporting About Books. "Someone said the kids don't report, they rave about books," she said, adding that she "absolutely refused" to assign books, fearing that would be too much like school.

Becky Minetto, a CRAB from 1969 to 1972, said that she always had been an avid reader but that it was "really because of Birdie" that she chose to become a children's librarian two decades ago.

"Your usual book-discussion group for kids was where kids have to read several books at a time and on a theme, and it would be much more structured," said Minetto, 42, of Temple Hills, who now works at the Surratts-Clinton branch. "We didn't discuss books that way. We raved about books."

The idea of Law's class was to persuade other children to read the book you loved, without, of course, divulging the ending, Minetto said.

That is still the case under Quarles.

But as much as the children at a recent CRABs meeting loved books, there were mixed responses when asked if they ever would write their own.

Some seemed headed in that direction--Tristiana said she writes poems, JaNiece said she writes short stories--but Nnamdi Osia, 11, of Accokeek, was undecided. "We'll see how it works out," he said.

For more information about CRABs, call Oxon Hill Library's children's services at 301-839-2400. The address is 6200 Oxon Hill Rd., Oxon Hill.

Youth Book Groups

Other book-discussion groups at county libraries:

* Teen Speak Out, Oxon Hill branch, for ages 13 to 18, every first Monday of the month from October to May, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Call 301-839-2400.

* BooKids, Greenbelt branch, for ages 8 to 12, every second Wednesday of the month except July and August, 4 to 5 p.m. Call 301-345-5800.

* The Reading Circle, Beltsville branch, for ages 9 to 12, every third Wednesday of the month from September to May, 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. Call 301-937-0294.

* Bowie Book Finders, Bowie branch, for ages 9 to 12, every fourth Wednesday of the month from January to April, 4 to 5 p.m. Call 301-218-5143.

* Reel to Reel (book and film discussion), Bowie branch, for ages 9 to 12, every fourth Wednesday of the month from September to December, 4 to 5 p.m. Call 301-218-5143.

* Reading Circle, Fairmount Heights branch, for ages 6 to 11, first Saturday of the month from October to June, noon to 1 p.m. Call 301-883-2650.

CAPTION: Nebe Chi Osia, 13, left, and Preciouse Patillo, 9, were readers in the CRABs program directed by Marsha Quarles, center.

CAPTION: Marcus Morris, 12, reads during a meeting of CRABs at the Oxon Hill Library.