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Unimagined terror and beauty unfold in different settings

The Old Country
By Mordicai Gerstein
Roaring Brook, 130 pp., ages 9-15, $14.95

King of the Pygmies
By Jonathon Scott Fuqua
Candlewick, 256 pp., ages 14 and up, $16.99

The world around us is deadly serious on one hand, insanely upside down on the other. Fables, straddling the real and unreal worlds, have the power to tell us news of both. The magical, the pastoral, the wildly inventive, and the peculiar will always find a place in children's literature, no matter how realistic the general trend. Two new books shine in fable form -- one Old World, one contemporary.

In Mordicai Gerstein's ''The Old Country" our young heroine, Gisella, switches bodies with a fox. She must somehow reunite with her family, end the war raging through the Old Country, and regain her true form.

''The Old Country" is framed as a classic tale told by Great-Grandmother Gisella: ''In the Old Country, every winter was a hundred years and every spring a miracle. . . . It's where all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic and there was war. It's where I was a little girl and where I was a fox." Gisella's hen is stolen by a fox; that very day an army comes for Gisella's foolhardy brother, Tavido. The drumbeat of war runs through the opening scene, setting the pace for what follows:

'' 'Run!' Grandfather said to Tavido. 'Run to the woods.' . . .

'' 'Run, Tavido!" clucked Great-Aunt Tanteh. 'Run!' . . .

'' 'Run to the woods!' His mother shook him, her shout all but drowned out by the drumming and clomping and jingling.

''But Gisella's brother stood like a tall blond statue, spellbound by the sound, looking down the road.

'' 'I'm not afraid of them,' he said. 'I'm not afraid of anything.' "

Extreme bravery is the blessing and the curse of youth. Tavido marches off to war, despised simply because he is a Crag. (''Maybe it's because we cook our dumplings a little differently, or because we speak a different language, or because of the way we wear our hats . . . who knows?") Gisella find herself in a magical world where her own cat becomes her lawyer; birds compose the jury; '' 'and I am the judge,' said a voice like a whisper of wind, small, but every word ringing in the empty space. Gisella saw a dot of light descending in the middle of the clearing. It was a pure white spider lowering itself on its thread."

In the insanity of war, justice hangs by a thread. A shape-shifting fairy named Quick accompanies Gisella through the war-torn Old Country. The space between the magical and real world cracks open, and Gisella slips through. Yet she is bound to her own human family, and wants to save them.

'' 'No time! No time!' said Quick. 'You're much better off as a fox. Foxes don't need big ugly houses and all those things humans have! Pots and pans and chairs and pictures and doors and wagons and fences and spoons -- how do you keep track of it all? Then you fight over it! Isn't that why you have wars? Then you blow it all to bits! What's the sense of it?' "

The first 50 or 60 pages of ''The Old Country" race forward, elegantly self-assured. The novel runs more ragged toward the end, faltering in broader parody. Gerstein has a few things to say about war and human nature -- in the sly form of a fable he can preach without being preachy, examine a terrifying world without terrifying his young readers. There are twists and surprises right to the end.

''King of the Pygmies," an urban fable by Jonathon Scott Fuqua, is equally exciting. The novel's narrator is a joke-cracking, tough, soft, painfully honest 15-year-old who's begun hearing voices. Are the voices real, is he reading other people's minds, or is he losing his own? Penn lives in run-down Havre de Grace, Md., once a legendary place of wealth and horse races, that has ''yellowed and curled like old newspaper pages." He's lived there his whole life, but now he's spotted a smart new girl named Daisy, and he likes her fiercely, sweetly, with all the conviction of his muddled teenage being. ''Leaves helicoptered from trees that were beginning to look like gray pencil scratches in the sky, while golden sunlight streamed powerfully through our classroom windows, causing Daisy's skin and lips to glow, as if she were a famous singer in the spotlight."

''King of the Pygmies" is a comic love story between Penn and down-on-its-luck Havre de Grace, between Penn and Daisy. It's a fantasy-mystery involving his uncle Hewitt, the crazy town drunk, former chief of police. Does Uncle Hewitt, ''his pants legs and shoes covered in dark smudges like chimney soot," understand what no one else can see -- is Penn magical, a king of his kind? Or, as Penn's mother suspects, are these the first symptoms of schizophrenia? ''King of the Pygmies" never falters in its commitment to Penn's voice and story. It doesn't settle easily on the side of magic or of medicine, suggesting instead that the world may be more complicated, more terrible and beautiful and unnerving than we could ever believe. Fuqua's eloquent afterword apologizes for not making the book a case study in schizophrenia, but its refusal to do so is what makes it high and true art.

Liz Rosenberg lives and teaches in Binghamton, N.Y.

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