First novels focus on likable role models

first novels. There are ways to find a book that will succeed with your child. Search out books that will challenge with story, rather than length. Be careful of the book's sophistication; a novella under 200 pages may be well above your child's maturity level. Big print and a scattering of pictures help, too.

Story elements that succeed are more subtle. Characters should be likable role models who face conflicts common to 6- to 9-year-olds. The settings (like home, school or neighborhood) should feel familiar. The tone should be upbeat and positive. You'll find all these traits in recently published titles.

Judy Blume's newest book is "Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One" (Delacorte, $12.99, ages 6-9) and has pictures by well-loved illustrator James Stevenson. In this short novel, Blume returns to characters she created in a 1985 picture book, "The Pain and the Great One." Enthusiastic first-grader Jacob annoys Abigail, his third-grade sister, who calls him "The Pain." Jacob calls Abigail "The Great One" because "she thinks she's so great!" Indeed, Abigail is self-assured to the point of bossiness. Blume's squabbling sibling protagonists express themselves in alternating chapters. Their situations, typical of young childhood problems, portray extremes as The Great One hides the fact she can't ride a bicycle while The Pain is deathly afraid of haircuts. Underneath the drama, tenderness shines through rivalry and their constant bickering keeps the book from being too sweet.

Teacher Karen English, after searching unsuccessfully for African-American characters in first novels, wrote "Nikki and Deja" (Clarion, $15.00, ages 7-10). These neighbors have been friends most of their lives, but differences emerge and so do difficulties when they start an exclusive drill team club to drive a snotty new neighbor mad with jealousy. English manages to capture a strong sense of both girls, their enduring relationship and the uncomfortable struggles that friends weather when changes erupt. Laura Freeman's illustrations give us a strong sense of situations and emotions.

Award-winning author Kimberly Holt tries her hand at early novels with "Piper Reed: Navy Brat" (Holt, $14.95, ages 7-9). Family takes center stage as the quirky Piper moves across the country with her military father, accommodating mother and two sisters. Piper is smack-dab in the middle between a genius younger sister and a whiny pre-adolescent older sister. Piper's optimism is pure sunlight. "Get off the bus!" she shouts enthusiastically at every occurrence that excites her. This was the call of her Gypsy Club in San Diego and she's determined to spread the catchphrase in Pensacola and then the rest of the world. But relocation isn't all that easy. The girls share one bathroom; Piper flounders making new friends; her dad has to leave on assignment; and while her parents finally agree to buy a dog, it's far from the German shepherd she had dreamed of. Still, Piper maintains her cheer and when it flags briefly, she realizes she's got "sister magic" to keep her going. Periodic pictures by Christine Davenier show the up-and-down transitions of the freckle-faced Piper.

Sheila Moses' beginning novel has a historical North Carolina setting; her heroine lives in the author's hometown of Rich Square in "Sallie Gal and the Wall-a-kee Man" (Scholastic, $15.99, ages 7-9). Sallie Gal's mother works hard doing laundry and Sallie pitches in cutting cotton while her father is away in Vietnam. But 8-year-old Sallie's quandary will be recognizable to her peers: Sallie wants hair ribbons so she can look as pretty as her cousin Wild Cat. This desire drives her so hard that she winds up in all kinds of trouble, breaking her mama's best pitcher and, worst of all, taking free ribbons from the Wall-a-Kee salesman who brings goods to her mama. Taking charity is strictly forbidden, and Sallie hides the ribbons and her guilt. Sallie so misses being in sync with family love that she tells the truth and is forgiven. The mix of this spunky heroine, history and warm black-and-white illustrations by Niki Daly work well together.

School is the primary setting for Sue Wilkowski's "The Bad Luck Chair" (Dutton, $15.99, ages 8-10). Fourth-grader Addison Darby has always been a good student and an unashamed member of the Word Nerds. All that changes rapidly when one day, she sits in the infamous Chair, a terrifying piece of school furniture that has cursed schoolchildren for years. Right away, Addison flunks a spelling test and almost as quickly rallies classmates to help her find a cure to her ills. Her quest for resolution leads her to the home of strangely dressed Katie who proclaims she has "secret Chair information," built on the research of her brother Jon, who lost his luck after sitting in the Chair. Drawing on her ability with words and mustering more courage than she knew she had, Addison reverses the curse. She also makes friends, relates long-kept secrets, stands up to bullies and unites her class in support. The book is a slightly older first novel. Its smaller print is relieved with occasional illustrations by C.B. Decker and concludes with a happy blend of mystery, fantasy and friendship.

Reader response

Kit Carson, a parent from Chapel Hill, recommends "Down Girl and Sit" by Lucy Nolan -- "This is probably one of the funniest books I've ever read with my kids," she says -- "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" by Beverly Cleary; The Riverside Kids Series by Johanna Hurwitz; The Cobble Street Cousins Series by Cynthia Rylant; "Stuart Little" by E.B. White; and "Flat Stanley" by Jeff Brown.

Sixth-grader Sarah Zelasky from Raleigh recommends Avi's "The Secret School." Ida Bidson wants to go to high school and become a teacher, but the 14-year-old has to pass eighth grade and her teacher has to retire for the rest of the school year without a substitute teacher. She and her fellow students would have to retake the grade and would all be behind a year, so Ida decides she could be the teacher for the rest of the school year as long as no one finds out.