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"Francie" by Karen English; Farrar Straus Giroux, $16, 199 pages.

Whenever 12-year-old Francie Weaver has a free minute, she likes to sit and watch the train and dream of someday getting out of Noble, Ala. Her father works as a Pullman porter and keeps promising he'll bring the family North.

In the meantime, Francie has to find off the school bully and the nasty daughters of the white ladies her mother cleans for. Then one day a 16-year-old boy walks into her school. She helps him learn to read, but then he drops out and she discovers he's been accused of trying to kill a white man. He may be hiding in the woods and she might be able to help him, but what will happen to her family if she gets caught?

English offers suspense, humor, memorable characters and a compelling story of pre-Civil Rights era Alabama.

-- Jean Westmoore


TheatreFiguren puppets will present "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" at 11 a.m. next Tuesday, Dec. 28, at the Lancaster Opera House. All seats are $3. Call 683-1776.


Look out, Space Mountain! Disney World's newest indoor roller coaster has more than a half mile of turns, dips -- and a rock 'n' roll twist.

Aerosmith stars on the park's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, which features the band's hits blasting in customized "limotrains." Each train holds 24 passengers and plays an Aerosmith tune rerecorded to fit the coaster theme. ("What Kind of Love Are You On?" becomes "What Kind of Ride Are You On?")

Riders really feel the music: Each seat has a subwoofer mounted underneath. The coaster hits 60 mph in less than three seconds, creating 5 Gs of force (a space shuttle crew encounters 3 Gs at liftoff).

Designed with band input, the ride begins by touring fictional G-Force Records, then rockets through the Hollywood Hills en route to an Aerosmith concert. It's a hit with parkgoers, "especially the young crowd," said Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain.


Q. How many names does Santa Claus have?

A. If every kid had as many names as Santa Claus, he'd never find all their homes in one night.

Actually, there's no perfect answer. At the very least, you could say he has three names. Or you could say the number's 15 or more. It just depends on how many little differences and languages you want to count.

Take Santa, Santa Claus and St. Nick. They all come from St. Nicholas. He was a Christian bishop in a land where Turkey is now, around the year 350. A legend tells of him giving gifts. The Dutch shortened the name Sint Niklaas to get Sinter Klaas, and that's the name that turned into Santa Claus in America. So you could say all of those names are kind of the same.

A second idea is Father Christmas. That's what Santa's called in England. Over in France, he's Pere Noel. But is that really different? Pere Noel is simply Father Christmas in French.

Third, we have Kris Kringle. In this country, it's definitely a different nickname for Santa. It comes from the German name Christkindl, which means "little Christ child." (So does El Nino, but that's a weather story.) Christkindl is a gift-giving angel.

Other countries also have tales of winter gift-givers. If you think of them as different kinds of Santas, maybe some of their names could count, too. For example, in Scandinavia there's an elf called Jultomten or Julenissen.

Then there's a woman named Belfana who brings gifts in Italy, as well as an old woman in Russia named Babouschka. Wait. Counting those would be like counting Santa Barbara -- a city in California!

-- Knight Ridder