From Norway, with that acute subjective perspective common to Northern European juveniles, comes this interlude with seven-year-old Joke, whose life is made heavy and uncertain by his father's ""nerves."" Coming home to find his father gone and the housework untouched is a blow for Joke, who fears that one day father might go so far on one of his long brooding walks that he can't return. Jake's mother is drained by her job and her domestic worries and longs to go to college and become a teacher, according to the couple's previous agreement. But her husband can't face a job, promises to see his shrink and then fails to show up, and generally brings gloom down on the household. Outside, further menace awaits Jake. ""It was weird,"" he says. ""Someone was always being mean to someone else."" And indeed that's how it seems in this small-fry world: where big kids beat up the little ones or force them to shoplift for acceptance; where calling his teacher ""Mommy"" by mistake floods Jake with such shame that he flees the classroom and leaves for the day; and where neighbor Sara fills his head with talk of a murderer, a witch, and other terrors right in his own apartment building. Realistically, Jake's father does not recover during this short interval, nor is there any promise that he will. But, more appropriately, Joke makes small gains on his own. The children prove to be not always as mean as they'd seemed. (There are no sudden flips, just the occasional surprising show of consideration; and the real toughie, quite a little character, is sadly apprehended by the authorities.) And when old witch Anderson proves to be a nice grandmother who gives out muffins, Jake is freed from the terrors of Sora's imagination . . . if not from the night birds of his own, those fearful creatures who threaten to emerge from the closet whenever his father's behavior is especially troubling. Genuine and quietly affecting.