cover image The Last Safe Place on Earth

The Last Safe Place on Earth

Richard Peck. Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, $15.95 (161pp) ISBN 978-0-385-32052-8

Fifteen-year-old Todd's dreams of a girlfriend seem on the verge of coming true when demure Laurel, a new student, becomes his kid sister Marnie's regular baby-sitter. But sweet-seeming Laurel has a strange effect on Marnie. As Peck's (Unfinished Portrait of Jessica) taut, suspenseful novel gradually reveals, Laurel's family belongs to a Christian group that seeks to ban Halloween traditions (``It is dangerous enough that children are brainwashed by the supernatural, witchcraft, devil worship, and heathen decorations throughout their grade-school years'') and, worse, to eliminate books from the high school curricula, including Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl (it ``clearly asserts all religions are equally valid''). Todd and his family join forces to undo Laurel's damage to Marnie and-on a grander scale-to fight for the civil liberties of the students and the community at large; in the process, they realize the importance of looking beyond people's carefully constructed facades. By portraying Laurel and her fellow prayer group members as vulnerable and troubled rather than simply opinionated, and by grounding the story in everyday details, Peck gets his message across clearly, and without much smugness. A highly topical tale. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)