Have you ever noticed how many novels for young readers are set in small towns? It makes sense, for teen or preteen life by nature feels like a small town, either cozy or confining. A young adult may be ready, or not, to step out into the wider world -- the unfamiliar, the challenge that will come sooner or later.
Natalie Lloyd uses the hamlet of Midnight Gulch, Tenn., as an expression of the desire to feel at home, to know one's place in the world. In "A Snicker of Magic" (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 8-12), Felicity Juniper Pickle's vagabond mother is bringing her daughters back to her hometown. Sixth-grader Felicity is a study in southern diction; she would never scoff using a single word when she could say, "That sounded ten different kinds of ridiculous to me." Felicity is a collector of words, which she sees hovering magically wherever she looks -- an ability that marks her as clearly descended from the legendary residents of Midnight Gulch, where stories of magical talents and a mysterious curse have been passed down for generations.
Felicity's mother isn't divulging much, but Felicity finds plenty of people to tell her about the history of Midnight Gulch, and she begins to wonder where the power of the curse comes from. Are stories told because they are true, or true because they are told? If burdens are said to be locked up in a cabinet, does it matter whether the person who opens the cabinet is magically burdened or merely believes herself to be burdened? As Felicity digs deeper into the townspeople's stories, old loves are rediscovered, old circles closed, and the community's magic is rekindled, knitting the townspeople together and revealing all their lost connections. Once Felicity knows where she comes from, Midnight Gulch will be the starting place for her own life's story.
Small-town life also provides a perfect background for mystery stories, because when the world is familiar, one notices what is out of place. Sherlock Holmes' brilliant deductions are satisfying to read, in part because they depend on his knowledge of the orderly world of Victorian (and post-Victorian) London. Mo LoBeau and Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, partners in the Desperado Detective Agency (first seen in Sheila Turnage's last book, "Three Times Lucky"), are equally knowledgeable about the colorful residents of Tupelo Landing, Miss. As Mo puts it, "Small towns have rules. One is, you got to stay who you are no matter how many murders you solve." Miss Lana, for example, can be counted on always to have a Plan B. "We've hit uncharted rapids on the river of life," she comments with her brand of aplomb. "Don't panic, don't stand up in the boat." Although their quarry in "The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing" (Kathy Dawson Books/ Penguin, $16.99, ages 10 and up) haunts an old dilapidated inn, it's a cinch the spirit will fit right in with the rest of the town's population.
And then there is, for older readers, the darker side of small-town life: the claustrophobic sense that everyone knows your business, the secrets that fester, the obligations that go back sometimes for generations, the impossibility of escaping a label like "son of the town drunk," the certainty that the future holds nothing better than a cashier's spot at the local market, the desperate thirst for wider horizons. This is the world Lauren Oliver paints in her novel "Panic" (HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 14 and up).
For as long as anyone can remember, Carp, an upstate New York town fallen on hard times, has hosted a creepy game called Panic. High school seniors contribute money all year long, and after graduation, those who will risk the dangers play for the pot. After the traditional game opener -- a nighttime plunge off a cliff into a flooded rock quarry -- anonymous judges set tasks that often are alarmingly tailored to the contestants' weaknesses, for in a small town, one's worst fears are inevitably public knowledge. Town authorities try every year to shut the game down, to no avail.
Kids compete in "Panic" for all kinds of reasons: long-held grudges, something to prove, and rarely out of real hope. Of course, the ultimate prize is enough money to get out of town -- a future that has historically eluded the winners, who are inevitably sucked back by the undertow of life's tides. Old hates, as well as old loves, die hard, and small towns, as writers have known since time immemorial, can contain the whole world.