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KIDS EATING UP BRIGHT, BOUNCY `SKINNYBONES'

It's pretty much a given among juvenile novelists that the only people who buy kids' hardback books are school librarians, writers and grandmothers.

True, the Horn Book reviews tend to flag publishers when a book's a winner, and the number of times a book is checked out from the library tells librarians what's hot, what's not.But if you really want a fix on which books kids are devouring, find out which ones they deem worthy of their allowances and baby-sitting money.

And since 1982, Salt Lake bookstores have reported brisk, brisk sales of "Skinnybones," a bouncy, high-energy snack of a book by Arizona novelist Barbara Park.

With its $2.50 price tag and third-grade vocabulary, the novel is almost as popular with kids as movies.

"Skinnybones" is the story of Alex "Skinnybones" Frankovich, a rather jaunty but insecure young man who hides his fears behind a clever wit. He can't get a hit on the baseball diamond, but his jokes are a constant hit in class; until he offends the one classmate he shouldn't.

The following snippet showcases Park's fresh humor, quick prose and ability to tap into the voice of adolescence - three reasons the novel keeps selling:

Naturally, the class cracks up. But after T.J. Stoner - star athlete - tells the class he was voted the Most Valuable Player in a California baseball league, Alex pushes the humor too far. His mouth seems to have a mind of its own:

Many serious children's writers and critics look down their noses at Park's writing. They find it facile, glib and too easy - much the way serious adult critics tend to view the work of Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and other popular writers.

But I think "Skinnybones" is a wonderful romp. In the end, Alex is able to use his cleverness to score even more points than T.J. Stoner. And, in Park's sequel, "Almost Starring Skinnybones," that coup lands the boy in the big city with even bigger problems.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Start with "Skinnybones." The book is a bigger diamond than even Alex dreams of playing on.