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What I learned on my summer vacation

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Summer: Those 10 weeks that can change your life -- when your time is your own, when you might fall in love (or lust) for the first time, or first make your own money, whether it's with a lemonade stand or a job with a paycheck. The endless possibility (with the start of the next school year as a built-in time limit) offers a great form for drama, and young-adult novelists exploit it to great effect. Here are three new novels that each take place over the course of a single summer and leave their heroes altered in ways they couldn't have imagined a short while before.

In Sarah Dessen's "Along for the Ride" (Viking: $19.99, ages 12 and older), Auden is set to enter the university come fall. Although she's a gifted student, it's clear that in meeting the expectations of her parents -- both brilliant professors, now divorced -- she has missed out on having a real childhood. At loose ends, Auden decides to spend her last high-school summer with her father, his young second wife, Heidi, and their new baby in a charming beach town. Before long, she is working at Heidi's boardwalk boutique and reluctantly entangling herself in the complexities of small-town teen society.

Dessen has developed a passionate following of readers for novels distinguished by the subtlety of the characters. Whatever background her teen heroes are from, she imagines their lives with a vividness that opens readers' hearts to other people's experiences and encourages them to give the people around them a chance. In "Along for the Ride," Dessen shows equal sympathy for the party culture of the beach town and for the seriousness Auden clings to, but she allows each side to show its richness slowly to the other.

Auden's friendship with the local mystery man -- a popular boy who withdrew into sullen silence when his friend was killed in a car accident -- blossoms in the night hours, when the two insomniacs gravitate to the same lonely spots. During the day, she discovers the strength of a girlfriend network. By summer's end, she has learned that an appreciation for the comforts of a junk-food run and a knowledge of English poets aren't necessarily incompatible -- and might, indeed, equip her in different ways to cope with college, not to mention give her a jump on adulthood.

As much as "Along for the Ride" is a satisfyingly feminine book, Don Calame's "Swim the Fly" (Candlewick: $16.99, ages 12 and older) is for the guys. Suffice to say that, of all the hilariously raucous scenes that stuff its pages, the most outrageous involves a bet (or is it blackmail?), cross-dressing and laxatives.

Matt and his two best friends have a long-standing tradition of setting themselves a goal for the summer, like collecting a thousand golf balls. Now that they're 15, the goal is to see "a real, live, naked girl." Clearly they're not the type of guys who go about accomplishing this in the ordinary way, even though they're on the swim team and see a lot of skin at practice daily.

When a hot new girl joins the team, Matt gets uncharacteristically ambitious and volunteers to enter the butterfly, the most difficult race of the competitive season. As the summer shoots by and disaster looms in the form of Tony Grillo, the rival swimmer inevitably known as the Gorilla, Matt veers between frantic training and despondency. Although the elements of "Swim the Fly" are familiar, there is an audacity in the humor and a sweetness in the conclusion that set it apart from the run-of-the-mill screenwriter's foray into fiction.

The deepest of these three novels, and the one that will stay with the reader the longest, is "Marcelo in the Real World" (Scholastic: $17.99, ages 12 and up) by Francisco X. Stork. For many readers, "Marcelo" will recall "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon, because it concerns a young man with Asperger's syndrome (although Marcelo could tell you that he accepts this label only to make other people feel comfortable) and, to some extent, it also involves a mystery that he is trying to solve despite his difficulties in dealing with the world outside his limited comfort zone.

Marcelo is finishing his junior year of high school, and he has arranged to take a summer job caring for the therapeutic ponies at his special-needs school. His father, however, has other ideas. He thinks that Marcelo needs to confront "the real world" by working in the mail room at his law firm. Marcelo undertakes the daily routine and suffers the scorn of many co-workers for using a logical approach to human relations that results in laborious work for him and the occasional inappropriate response.

Marcelo's father gets more than he bargained for when Marcelo begins to understand too clearly the rules of the real world, especially the rules that govern the behavior of legal antagonists and business rivals. Stork has written a beautiful study of the loss of innocence, as the questions Marcelo confronts are ones everyone has to grapple with in some form or other: How can you tell when sex is being used for bad purposes? How do you stay loyal to two people who don't like each other? Does your father deserve to be protected when he's engaged in bad behavior? And, perhaps most important: How can you do the right thing when you don't know what the consequences will be?

In keeping with the theme of mind expansion during summer vacation, here are some additional titles to consider:

"Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters" by Lenore Look. (Random House: $15.99, ages 8-11)

For younger readers (ages 8-11), the second in the series about Alvin Ho, scaredy-cat extraordinaire and descendant of a long line of Chinese warrior-farmers, will inject some humor into the summer reading list. This installment sends Alvin into the Great Outdoors on a camping trip with his father. Here's the discussion about Alvin's chances for survival: "Real camping," says Pinky, "is roughing it." "You grow a beard and live like an animal," says Eli. "You either get hit by lightning, or you don't," whispers Hobson. "If you can't start a fire, you could freeze to death," says Scooter. "And if you do start a fire, you could burn to death." "If you hear a rattler, it's too late," says Pinky. "And when it's over," says Sam, "the Angel of Death comes for you!" Here's how Alvin knows the outing promises his certain demise: His mother cooks his favorite food for his last meal. Never has a camping trip been so lavishly equipped with safety equipment; thank heaven anything can be ordered last-minute on the Internet, and all on Dad's plastic!

"Sir John Hargrave's Mischief Maker's Manual" by Sir John Hargrave (Grosset and Dunlap: $15.99, ages 10 and older)

In the new literary category of old-fashioned summer fun (à la "The Dangerous Book for Boys"), "The Mischief Maker's Manual" is definitely a book to hand your child with a smile -- and then back away quickly. In it are recipes for practical jokes, pranks and actual mayhem, all neatly categorized and labeled for effective planning. If it seems unwise to encourage such vice, the author begins his ingenious volume with the observation that pranking is a recognized art form at top colleges, and "the schools that are most 'enlightened' about mischief are the ones your parents secretly want you to attend anyway." Here Hargrave inserts a useful chart listing the cost of education at such institutions as MIT, Harvard and Oxford, as well as the "Prankster's Code": "Always be careful. Don't be a bully. Be creative. No lasting damage. Excellence in pranking. Be funny." His final chapter discusses proper behavior when apprehended. I can think of worse talents to develop during a leisurely summer.

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

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