Once the novelty of school being out has worn off, many juvenile bibliomaniacs find their way to the library or bookstore. This summer there is a crop of books that subtly teach lessons about how people are basically alike, despite disabilities, upbringing and outward appearances.
Leading the pack is 'Rules,' a debut by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, ages 9-12). It introduces Catherine, a 12-year-old longing for normality in a family where life seems to revolve around her autistic younger brother, David. The summer after sixth grade finds her caught between two new friends - Kristi, her next-door neighbor who ranks high in the 'cool' category, and Jason, a disabled boy Catherine meets at the clinic where her brother goes for treatment every week.
As the summer moves along, Catherine finds herself in the awkward position of having to choose between the acquaintances. She also must deal with her mixed emotions about David, whose erratic behavior is both infuriating and an accepted part of Catherine's day-to-day life. Lord, the mother of an autistic child, doesn't yank at her readers' heartstrings. Her spirited story teaches without preaching.
While the age recommendation for 'Firegirl' (Little, Brown) also is 9 to 12, I would suggest it for mature readers. As the title of Tony Abbott's latest book implies, the subject matter can be somewhat frightening.
Tom Bender is the 12-year-old narrator, a sensitive, awkward boy who, like his friends, is both curious and horrified when a new girl joins their seventh-grade class. Jessica Feeney was in a terrible accident, the details of which are a mystery for most of the book. Severely burned, she is seeking treatment at a nearby hospital and attempting to keep up with her education at Tom's Catholic school.
Most of the class ignores Jessica. But one day Tom is talked into dropping off a homework assignment at the new girl's house. What he learns and how he reacts form the crux of Abbott's story.
'The Wonder Kid' (Houghton Mifflin, ages 8-12), by George Harrar, will introduce many young readers to a now rare disease that terrified many of their grandparents as children. It's 1954, and Jesse James MacLean isn't having the fun summer he was planning on. Thanks to the threat of polio, 'the great crippler of children,' Jesse has to stay close to home and amuse himself. Despite his mother's best efforts, polio strikes.
Bedridden, Jesse soon turns to his love of drawing comics as a way to pass the time and take his mind off the question of whether he'll ever walk again. With the help of his parents and a new girlfriend, Jesse learns more about himself and the people around him than he ever thought possible.
Jenny Han's first young-adult novel, 'Shug' (Simon and Schuster, ages 10-14), captures the thrills, horrors and drama of moving from elementary school to junior high. It also offers a keen look at how every family has certain challenges, no matter how perfect they look from the outside.
Annemarie Wilcox, or 'Shug,' as her family calls her, is a 12-year-old teetering on the brink of adolescence. In one summer she realizes she is in love with her former best male friend and that she may be losing her best girlfriend to the popular crowd. To top it all off, her mother's drinking has escalated, and it seems like her father is never at home. Han discreetly sprinkles wisdom throughout an engaging read.
Differences in family, gender and sexual orientation abound in the first book by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, 'Dairy Queen' (Houghton Mifflin, ages 12 and up). Fifteen-year-old tomboy D.J. Schwenk lives on a farm in Wisconsin with her parents and younger brother. Her two older brothers, both former high school football standouts, have left home under a cloud of bad feelings.
What's more, the cute quarterback from her school's rival team is sent to work on the Schwenk farm, plus D.J.'s best friend, Amber, is acting weird. Murdock does an admirable job of covering several issues in a lively, thoughtful debut.
Percy Jackson's disability stems from the fact that he is half man, half immortal. In 'Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book Two: Sea of Monsters' (Hyperion, ages 12 and up), Rick Riordan once again sends his hero off on a whirlwind adventure. (The first book of this must-read trilogy is 'The Lightning Thief.')
Twelve-year-old Percy thinks he's headed off to another summer at Camp Half-Blood when fate, in the form of several 'eight-foot-tall giants with wild eyes, pointy teeth, and hairy arms' intervenes. Suddenly Percy and several sidekicks are on the trail of the Golden Fleece, hoping to save not only a dear friend but the future of Camp Half-Blood itself.
Riordan's story is vivid, rollicking and fast-moving. Warning to parents: You may find yourself sneaking off to the hammock with this one.
Reading in Portland this week:
A series of firsts is chronicled in 'The Girl I Wanted to Be,' the new novel by Sarah Grace McCandless. First date, first cigarette, first cup of coffee. The author will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 23, at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).
Publishers Weekly called blogger Jami Attenberg's debut 'funny' and 'perceptive.' Three women, including a nymphomaniac scientist and a rich housewife, are featured in her novel, 'Instant Love.' Attenberg will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 26, at Powell's City of Books.