September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

By Tayari Jones

Beginning in the summer of 1979, 29 black children were snatched off the streets of Atlanta one by one and murdered over an agonizing two-year period. In her debut novel Jones, who grew up in Atlanta during that time, paints a portrait of what it’s like to come of age in a city where children are an endangered species. This isn’t a crime tale, though: The murders are just the backdrop for a largely anecdotal story of childhood. The killings are mentioned only tangentially, lost amid the many familiar tableaux of youth: girls negotiating for a parental chaperone or learning how to properly apply Vaseline to bring out the eyes.

Jones has an eloquent voice when it comes to describing seemingly autobiographical details about the tense community. In one chilling episode kids dicker over who must sit in the empty chair of a missing classmate who is feared dead. In another a stressed-out dad turns up in the classroom to give his son a public beating. Leaving Atlanta has plenty of passion, if not much plot. (Warner, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Promising debut

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