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BASEBALL IN APRIL And Other Stories<i> by Gary Soto (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 128 pp.) </i>

<i> Comerford is a free-lance writer and children's book critic. </i>

Readers who think of Gary Soto primarily as a poet will be pleasantly surprised to discover that this first volume of young-adult stories offers the same unadorned expression and concrete imagery that have characterized his previous works. Soto, a student of Philip Levine, already has earned a reputation as a leading Chicano writer. His poems have appeared in such journals as The New Yorker, Paris Review, New Republic and Nation. He also has produced one volume of autobiographical essays (“Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections”) as well as several collections of poetry, including “The Elements of San Joaquin,” “The Tale of Sunlight” and “Where Sparrows Work Hard.”

Although the stories in “Baseball in April” are contemporary, their subject matter may well have been influenced by Soto’s own childhood in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In a down-to-earth manner, Soto presents everyday life as it exists in the streets, homes and schools of poor Mexican-American communities located in the Central Valley. His heroes and heroines are the children of practical-minded laborers who have little extra money to spend on their families’ growing needs.

Without attempting to moralize, Soto reveals the pain of having to do without. Yet rather than focus on despair, he concentrates on the hopes and dreams of young people struggling to find a place for themselves in the world.

Desire and determination are perhaps best exemplified in the title story. Here, a boy’s resilient spirit allows him to cope with disheartening realities. Although he is not as good at baseball as is his older brother Michael, 9-year-old Jesse loves the sport and is excited about the prospect of trying out for Little League. Neither of the brothers makes the team, but after recovering from the disappointment, the two join a group of neighborhood players who are being coached by a the fatherly Billy Reeves.

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The team has no uniforms, few good players and continually loses games to the Red Caps, the only other team in the league. Even though other players become discouraged and drift off to pursue other interests, Jesse continues to show up for practice and never loses his enthusiasm for baseball.

The rich texture of Soto’s writing stems from his ability to convey a mixture of deeply felt emotions through economical language. Moments of disappointment are balanced with experiences of gratification, joy and warmth.

In the story, “Mother and Daughter,” the humiliation that Yollie feels in having to wear an old dress to a dance is followed by exhilaration when she wins the attention of an attractive young man. Eventually, she is allowed to purchase a new blouse, skirt and shoes for an upcoming date. In “Barbie,” the frustration that Veronica experiences in owning less-than-perfect dolls is tempered by her more deeply rooted affection, revealed when the little girl carries her two broken Barbies lovingly to bed.

Many of Soto’s selections portray a longing to rise above the crowd; the need children feel to be recognized for special talents. Characters’ attempts to emulate idols--movie celebrities and rock stars--is sometimes humorous and often poignant. The stories, “La Bamba,” “The Karate Kid” and “The Marble Champ” reveal that accomplishing greatness goes beyond creating a new, flashy image; rather, it is the product of very hard work, and is sometimes accompanied by physical or emotional pain.

Family unity is another theme that emerges throughout the collection. Although several stories touch on sibling rivalry and general rebelliousness against the older generation, loyalties to brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents are strongly emphasized.

The opening story, “Two Dreamers,” unveils a close relationship between 9-year-old Hector and his immigrant grandfather as the two discuss a scheme to get rich. The coming-of-age story, “Growing Up,” presented at the end of the volume, shows the strength of family ties as it explores how an independent 10th-grader comes to realize how much she really cares for her parents, younger sister and brothers.

All of Soto’s stories have a strong Latino flavor derived from precise descriptions of home environments and true-to-life dialect; yet the experiences and emotions of characters are universal. If less- sophisticated readers miss some of the subtler messages of the stories, they will find characters with whom they can identify, and will not fail to be moved by the book’s more tender moments. For readers unfamiliar with Chicano slang, there is a helpful glossary of Spanish words and phrases.

With tremendous success, Soto transfers to prose his poetic skills of crystallizing a moment and revealing many layers of meaning through ordinary events. His sensitivity to young people’s concerns and his ability to portray the world as it is perceived by children is nothing less than remarkable.

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