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Bookshelf: 'Theodore Boone,' 'The Red Pyramid'

Every successful author, it seems, has discovered the satisfactions of writing for a younger audience: the appreciation shown in measurable traffic to one's website, the near-assurance of a series. John Grisham's first book for young readers, "Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer" (Dutton Children's Books, $16.99, ages 8-12) follows the formula established in his adult bestsellers, although this legal thriller has, thankfully, less violence.

Theodore Boone - Theo to his friends, Teddy to his mother - is only 13, but he's well on his way to being a crack legal mind. His parents are both lawyers; his dog is called Judge. His classmates come to him for legal advice.

When a big murder trial opens in town, Theo's tight relationship with the presiding judge assures his whole government class seats in the packed courtroom. The accused is on trial for murdering his wife, and while Theo grapples with the concept of presumption of innocence, it's obvious the guy is guilty, and pretty smug about getting away with it. Then a crucial witness who can prove the defendant's guilt falls into Theo's lap, but he's an illegal immigrant, afraid to come forward. Moral, legal and social issues are at stake.

Grisham's writing is neater than a pin, with explanations effortlessly cast as natural conversation and fascinating legal problems laid out for an audience on the edge of its seat. More sophisticated readers may find the ending a tad naive, but most will find it satisfying and look forward to Theo's continuing adventures.

Readers who devoured the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" books wondered what Rick Riordan would do next. He'd hinted that he might write spinoffs based on secondary characters; kids were pulling for their favorites. Instead, he's gone in a different direction. Moving from the Olympian gods to the Egyptian deities, he has launched a new series with "The Red Pyramid" (Disney-Hyperion, $17.99, ages 10-12). Riordan's readers won't be disappointed by the similarities to "Percy Jackson," because the rip-roaring energy of his storytelling is only better channeled with practice.

The premise of the two series is the same: The gods of yore are alive and well and living in today's world, with the same relationship to and power over humans they had in ancient times. Our sibling heroes discover their connection to the hidden world of the gods and must quickly develop newfound powers to avert global catastrophe.

As in "Percy Jackson," terrifying monsters pursue the heroes, dissolving into sand when defeated with magical weapons, and clues often come in dreams. There is also Riordan's trademark middle-school humor: a baboon-butler expresses irritation by angrily dribbling a basketball, and dangerous gods inhabit "powerful objects, such as statues, amulets, monuments, certain models of cars."

The fact that Egyptian mythology is less widely known than Greek takes away a bit from the depth of the new series, because it's harder to appreciate how cleverly the author has adapted an ancient story to the modern world.

The idea of Ares, Greek god of war, turning up in a leather jacket on a motorbike resonates with our image of the scowling warmonger, whereas we'd be hard-pressed to come up with any image at all of a single Egyptian god. They turn sideways, don't they? Animal heads, maybe?

But the secret society of magicians, the House of Life, did it really exist? Riordan feels it necessary to close "The Red Pyramid" with an author's note, explaining that "much of this story is based on fact" - which won't make a whit of difference to his readers - before promising a sequel, which they're already breathlessly awaiting.


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